If there were any doubts about the Pallister government’s true motive for handing out $200 cheques to seniors, Manitoba’s premier laid them to rest last week.
Brian Pallister raised eyebrows earlier this month when he announced that all Manitobans age 65 and older would receive the non-taxable benefit regardless of income. He was rightly accused of misusing tax dollars to boost his personal profile during a pandemic.
Mr. Pallister defended the move — which will cost taxpayers $45 million — by claiming seniors are disproportionately affected by the novel coronavirus. He argued the cheques are meant to show respect to those who "built this province."
It’s a tenuous argument, especially since only 14 per cent of Manitoba seniors fall below the poverty line.
The premier eliminated any uncertainty about the true motive behind the payouts when he revealed last week the cheques would include personal "thank you" letters signed by him.
"I’m going to send a letter with (the cheques) to thank and congratulate our seniors, and I’ll probably sign that, darn right," Mr. Pallister said.
“I’m going to send a letter with (the cheques) to thank and congratulate our seniors, and I’ll probably sign that, darn right.” — Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister
Even if there were good policy reasons behind Mr. Pallister’s Seniors Economic Recovery Credit (if, for example, it was income-tested and directed at those struggling with pandemic-related costs), it is highly unusual for a premier to send out thank-you notes to the recipients of government cheques.
This is a clear case of Mr. Pallister using tax dollars to curry favour with seniors.
While the premier loosens the province’s purse strings for his own political gain, he has offered only limited support to those facing economic hardship from the pandemic. He is also planning cuts to the public service and to government-funded agencies.
The premier has been reluctant from the very beginning of this crisis to provide financial support to those hardest hit by the coronavirus-ravaged economy, including small and medium-sized businesses. For the most part, Mr. Pallister has let the federal government absorb those costs, whether through Ottawa’s wage-subsidy program or the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, which the premier has wrongly characterized as "paying people to stay out of the workforce."
Even the province’s $6,000 one-time grant for struggling companies, unveiled earlier this month, is limited to businesses that are ineligible for federal aid.
When it suits him politically, Mr. Pallister advocates austerity. When it doesn’t, he signs off on self–serving, discretionary expenditures. The premier claims the province is reeling from the effects of plummeting tax revenues because of the downturn in the economy, yet he reduces those revenues further by cutting taxes.
Mr. Pallister argues that cuts to government-funded agencies and reduced hours for civil servants, as well as limited aid to businesses, are necessary to limit provincial government borrowing. The province estimates it may be saddled with a $5-billion deficit this year because of the pandemic (although the province’s fiscal estimates have been widely disputed by analysts).
Despite that, the premier saw fit to spend $45 million on a scheme to promote himself among elderly voters. He is also going ahead with an estimated $103 million in tax and fee cuts this year, including eliminating the provincial sales tax on property insurance premiums. These tax cuts are broad-based and are not directed at those in need.
When it suits him politically, Mr. Pallister advocates austerity. When it doesn’t, he signs off on self-serving, discretionary expenditures. The premier claims the province is reeling from the effects of plummeting tax revenues because of the downturn in the economy, yet he reduces those revenues further by cutting taxes.
There is probably no worse time for a politician to lose credibility in the eyes of the public than during a crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic. For Mr. Pallister, the erosion of trust during this crisis has been significant.
Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.