Premier yields to pandemic’s new reality

Here’s the thing about reality: sometimes it’s decidedly grim.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 27/03/2020 (979 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Here’s the thing about reality: sometimes it’s decidedly grim.

But it’s at those times that it’s most important to have a firm grip on it. Being in denial won’t improve the situation, and might actually end up making a bad situation worse.

One is left wondering by the events of the past week whether Manitoba’s premier has been forced, by rapidly unfolding events, to concede that he had allowed a single-minded ideological pursuit to distract him from the urgent fiscal realities of the quickly devolving pandemic crisis.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister abruptly reversed an earlier decision to lower the provincial sales tax by one percentage point in the provincial budget.

Prominent among the causes for such concern is the manner in which Brian Pallister abruptly reversed course on his recently trumpeted decision to lower the provincial sales tax by an additional percentage point. While the move itself indicates a level of understanding, the length of time it took the premier to publicly acknowledge its necessity suggests he must have been in some form of denial about the mounting evidence that cutting the PST during a pandemic would be imprudent.

When he revealed, on March 5, the decision to shave another point off the PST, Mr. Pallister seemed positively giddy about adding this to his political “win” list — so much so, in fact, that he jumped the gun on his own government’s budget so he could make the announcement himself. The PST cut, balanced against the reintroduction of Manitoba’s version of a carbon tax, was apparently so worthy of its own end-zone dance that Mr. Pallister couldn’t leave it to his finance minister to deliver the good news.

While the COVID-19 crisis had not kicked into high gear by March 5 — that didn’t happen until the March 11 abandonment of an NBA game, after a player’s positive coronavirus test, set in motion an avalanche of cancellations, shutdowns and restrictions across North America — Manitoba’s government would necessarily have been aware of the havoc created in China and Italy by COVID-19’s westward trajectory, and that an outbreak in North America was inevitable.

When asked about the financial impact of this crisis and the need for the province to reconsider its plan, Mr. Palllister’s default position was that Manitoba is well equipped to weather the storm and no major reconsiderations are required.

Despite that knowledge, Mr. Pallister held fast to the PST reduction as the centrepiece of Budget 2020. Even after the NDP engaged in several days of procedural wrangling to delay the budget’s introduction — thereby giving the government an extra week to consider the fast-accumulating evidence that the pandemic is driving the global economy into recession (and perhaps straight on through to full-fledged depression) — the eventual passage of the provincial budget brought no late changes that reflected the harsh certainties of the moment.

When asked about the financial impact of this crisis and the need for the province to reconsider its plan, Mr. Palllister’s default position was that Manitoba is well equipped to weather the storm and no major reconsiderations are required.

Until … Thursday. That’s when the premier’s ever-defiant, stick-to-your-guns, all-hands-on-deck, more-money-on-the-kitchen-table demeanour suddenly evaporated. That was the day Mr. Pallister stated publicly that the financial impact of the pandemic “may be without precedent,” and that in addition to conceding the need to delay the PST cut and carbon tax by a year, he was willing to state for the record that Manitoba’s fiscal stabilization fund — the oft-touted “rainy day” account — might be wiped out within three months.

A grim new reality, indeed. And it was useful for the premier to share it with Manitobans, straight up. The question that remains is why it took until this advanced stage of a full-fledged global crisis for Mr. Pallister to accept and articulate its gravity.

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