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Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, Premier Brian Pallister has stuck to his ideological guns — especially when it comes to the question of whether to expand the social safety net, even on a temporary basis.
While other provinces offered some form of direct monetary support to citizens affected by the crisis, Mr. Pallister staunchly refused to introduce new measures, opting to leave that work to the federal government. This isn’t surprising: skepticism of increased social spending is at the core of the premier’s politics. But it does make his recent hostile posture toward Ottawa’s emergency programs seem all the more tone-deaf.
Last Wednesday, after announcing plans to relax public-health orders, Mr. Pallister was asked about the challenges facing businesses looking to reopen. The premier raised the issue of getting employees back to work — and his first concern was the existence of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB).
"We are fighting against a federal program that is actually paying people to stay out of the workforce right now," he said. "I don’t like the fact that that is real, but that is real. People are being paid to stay home and not work.
"Small businesses have told us they’re fighting against a federal student program that actually pays people to not work, and not look for work," he continued, describing the Canada Emergency Student Benefit (CESB) unveiled in late April. "This also is a disincentive."
That Mr. Pallister should take aim at the CERB — a taxable, $500 weekly benefit equivalent to just $12.50 per hour at a full-time position — is concerning. Since its launch in early April, it has been a qualified success: eligible workers found that applying online was fast and simple, and cash arrived in accounts within 24 hours. That turnaround was critical, especially for those working in low-paid, public-facing jobs that were among the first to be axed in the pandemic.
That cash has allowed families to buy groceries and pay rent. It has enabled exactly what was — and still is — necessary to contain the pandemic: for millions of Canadians to stay home and safely observe physical distancing, while ensuring their basic needs were met. For Mr. Pallister to contextualize this as something the province is "fighting against" flies against everything he and public-health leaders have been urging for seven weeks.
What makes his critique even more jarring is that the pandemic is ongoing. Manitoba has successfully flattened its first wave, but the danger is far from over: the province is still urging physical distancing and other measures. Employers who are allowed to reopen this week are scrambling to obtain sufficient hand sanitizer or institute required safety procedures. For many, those processes will take time.
Many workers who receive the CERB or CESB — particularly those with family members at a high risk of severe complications from COVID-19, or in a high-risk category themselves — are cautious about returning to the workforce too soon. Public-health officials say, with the premier’s support, that reopening the province should be guarded and deliberate.
"We must not allow for a COVID comeback," Mr. Pallister said in the same Wednesday news conference.
On that, all Manitobans can agree. If the premier wishes to see people get back to work, he ought to focus on ensuring a safe and supported return during this crisis. In the meantime, the CERB has offered critical support to Manitobans where the province itself offered none; that Mr. Pallister should now treat it as an enemy of recovery, rather than a key safety net enabling a cautious and measured return, is inexcusable.
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