Opinion

What is Premier Brian Pallister's end game for the COVID-19 pandemic?

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This article was published 24/4/2020 (549 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

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What is Premier Brian Pallister's end game for the COVID-19 pandemic?

Obviously, he is concerned about the health and well-being of Manitobans. Although he frequently descends into melodrama when talking about the subject, there is little doubt the premier is losing sleep worrying about whether the province will succumb to a tidal wave of COVID-19 cases.

Beyond that, what's the plan?

While there is a fair degree of transparency around the public health measures the provincial government is taking, other aspects of the pandemic response are considerably more opaque because of Pallister's tendency to torque claims about his accomplishments and misrepresent statistics about Manitoba's pandemic response and fiscal health.

Sometimes, the premier fudges the details on small things, such as the size of the paycut he willingly accepted to help reduce government overhead. (Pallister said he was taking a 25 per cent pay cut — but that was only to the base MLA portion of his salary; factor in premiums he's paid as first minister, and it actually totals an eight per cent reduction.)

Manitoba premier Brian Pallister claimed he was taking a 25 per cent pay cut to help reduce government overhead during the pandemic, but it actually totals an eight per cent reduction to his gross pay.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Manitoba premier Brian Pallister claimed he was taking a 25 per cent pay cut to help reduce government overhead during the pandemic, but it actually totals an eight per cent reduction to his gross pay.

Other times, the fibs deal with bigger issues.

For example, for weeks Pallister has claimed Manitoba has "the highest per capita debt of any province." A strange claim to make given the stats are easily accessible on the Internet: Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick all have higher per capita net debt numbers.

It appears Pallister deliberately included the capital debt of Manitoba Hydro, which is substantial, but excluded Crown utility debts in other provinces. To what end?

If the premier has proven anything over the last four years, it is he loves loves to exaggerate and misrepresent numbers. Every new policy or program Pallister introduces is the best, most progressive or most generous in Canada; everything the former NDP government did was the worst example of government. There is no middle ground.

Most times, the exaggerations are merely amusing; not so in the grips of a pandemic.

When the premier claims the province is facing a fiscal crisis — a perfect storm driven by higher health-care costs and a drastic reduction in tax revenue — he's largely telling the truth. Although it has not faced the crush of COVID-19 cases other provinces have, Manitoba's economy is just as disabled.

Manitoba is staring into the gaping maw of a 10-figure deficit.

If the premier has proven anything over the last four years, it is he loves loves to exaggerate and misrepresent numbers. Every new policy or program Pallister introduces is the best, most progressive or most generous in Canada; everything the former NDP government did was the worst example of government. There is no middle ground.

To prepare for the coming fiscal storm, Pallister has said public-sector furloughs or layoffs will be necessary. During a recent news conference, the premier promised job losses will only come "in areas where people are not able to serve the public right now."

The lie in that statement is the Pallister government is not focusing solely on civil servants who currently have little or nothing to do. He is most definitely going after everyone outside of front-line health care, with little regard to whether they are continuing to provide a necessary service.

This is seen in Pallister's directive to colleges and universities to cut budgets by 30 per cent. The idea of slashing funding for post-secondary institutions right now is profoundly short-sighted: they are operating at full steam online, and enrolment has exploded as people attempt to use their time on employment insurance benefits to train for better or more secure jobs.

When the premier claims the province is facing a fiscal crisis ‐ a perfect storm driven by higher health–care costs and a drastic reduction in tax revenue ‐ he's largely telling the truth. Although it has not faced the crush of COVID–19 cases other provinces have, Manitoba's economy is just as disabled.

This directive is not about emergency fiscal planning, and very much about drastically reducing the province's costs of higher education well beyond the pandemic.

The same broad swath is being cut out of other departments. Sources in Manitoba Justice confirmed unions representing Legal Aid Manitoba staff lawyers and Crown prosecutors have been asked to take 35 unpaid days off over the next four or five months.

The justice system has been slowed by the pandemic but, for the most part, there is still a steady flow of cases making their way from the front lines of law enforcement to courts and prisons.

Legal Aid lawyers and prosecutors do not fall within the definition of people who "are not able to serve the public right now." Why are they being asked to take seven work weeks off?

... The Pallister government is not focusing solely on civil servants who currently have little or nothing to do. He is most definitely going after everyone outside of front–line health care, with little regard to whether they are continuing to provide a necessary service.

It is quite possible Pallister is simply misjudging the fiscal threat at this point or he is unable to come up with more creative, less-onerous solutions that do not throw civil servants onto the unemployment heap.

However, it's looking more and more likely the Tory premier is simply seizing an opportunity to permanently reduce the size and scope of government.

While a smaller government would ultimately pave the way for massive tax cuts — Pallister's long-term goal — it would also push the province's economy deeper into the economic abyss. So deep, it may never return to level ground.

At a time when Manitobans need the straight goods, they're getting an endless string of half-truths, unsupported claims and outright fibs.

Pandemic or no pandemic, it is not the prescription Manitobans need right now.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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