Premier Brian Pallister, for reasons known only to him, seems to have declared war on Manitoba’s youth during this pandemic. He has failed to protect the private sector that provides the jobs youth rely upon, and he is dismantling the public institutions that provide youth with necessary job skills.
His antipathy toward the public sector is no surprise. He is an advocate of leaner (to the point of anorexia), meaner government. That he wants to use the pandemic as cover to dismantle public institutions is surprising only in its audacity.
What is surprising is his attack on the private sector, and his failure to realize that extraordinary times require extraordinary measures. Businesses are dying daily, and Pallister has failed to meet obvious needs. Manitobans have now seen through the pretense, the phony promises and fake measures that provide only pennies when real dollars are necessary.
During the pandemic, shuttered businesses have no revenue. Without revenue they cannot pay rent. Pallister’s answer? A $6,000 one-time rent assist. That doesn’t even come close to covering the monthly rent of a food stall in the Polo Park food court. Without temporary government support during the pandemic, the restaurant industry is dying.
Beyond the simple reality that dead businesses pay no taxes, these businesses are important because they are in the food-service and retail sector that are primary employers of our youth. If Pallister were serious, he’d add a zero to the $6,000.
Another of Pallister’s empty promises is his summer student employment fund: an impressive $120 million. The problem is this: he will never spend it, not even close. As of this week, just seven per cent of the money had been committed. He might as well have declared a $120-billion fund.
The real problem isn’t government support for jobs (a more generous federal program already exists), but that jobs don’t exist because the businesses that provide them are dead or dying. Youth unemployment, approaching 30 per cent, is now at a record high and may go higher still. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did exactly the right thing by creating the Canada Emergency Student Benefit that Pallister rails against.
His increased funding for scholarships and bursaries for students is another empty promise: it matches dollars to funds raised by universities from the private sector. That fundraising has, for obvious reasons, dried up. Again Pallister and Economic Development Minister Ralph Eichler promise dollars they will never spend. If they were serious, they would simply create scholarships and bursaries with no strings attached and leave the colleges and universities to create more on their own.
As the pandemic has progressed, the premier’s rhetoric has become increasingly Orwellian. Words and phrases take on meanings opposite to conventional definitions: "We must cut your jobs because there is no work to do." How does that square with funding cuts to post-secondary institutions, where workloads are rising as everyone scrambles to move resources online?
And costs are rising too, as the technology to deliver online programs needs to be built out and quickly. Pallister’s solution? Cut funding, and quickly. That ensures fewer spaces for students when they are needed most. If he were serious about higher education, he would not cut operating funds when costs and workloads are rising, and revenues are falling. He would do the opposite.
The premier showed his hand when he presented the ultimatum to cut budgets up to 30 per cent, giving universities only five days to prepare to dismantle their institutions. Pallister and his government seemed surprised that 30 per cent cuts would likely result in the closure of at least half the public universities. If they did not know that, that is plain incompetence.
The alternative is that they knew full well the consequences and used the pandemic as cover to fast-track Draconian cuts. That would be Machiavellian. It’s not often one roots for incompetence.
The 30 per cent budget reductions were trial balloons: how much could they get away with while Manitobans were distracted by the pandemic? It’s now clear this was part of the longer-term strategy all along. The Pallister government has cut funding for universities and colleges every year in office. We now know the ultimate target; it’s just a question of how quickly he can get there.
If left to the premier’s worst instincts, Manitobans will be left with a crumbling economy, a landscape littered with dead businesses and broken public institutions. Manitoba’s youth will pay the heaviest cost: an economy with few jobs, and fewer opportunities for higher education. Our youth will remember that during the time of crisis, Pallister turned his back on them.
Scott Forbes is president of the Manitoba Organization of Faculty Associations.
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