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Hydro layoffs add to Pallister's pandemic folly

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For Premier Brian Pallister, it's personal now.

That is to say, as we see the curtain pulled back on more of Pallister's grand pandemic response, it has become increasingly clear that he is more concerned with personal goals than the welfare of the province or its inhabitants.

Premier Brian Pallister said that without layoffs, the province's economic recovery would take longer to realize and Hydro's debt — already swollen by capital projects — would continue to grow.
(Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

RUTH BONNEVILLE

Premier Brian Pallister said that without layoffs, the province's economic recovery would take longer to realize and Hydro's debt — already swollen by capital projects — would continue to grow. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

And his No.1 personal goal appears to be protecting his legacy as the man who "fixed" the finances of the provincial government. Pallister is so driven to galvanize his place in history that it appears he is prepared to sacrifice the province's economy.

Case in point: this week, Manitoba Hydro announced it would lay off up to 700 workers for four months as part of a government-wide austerity plan. Economists, journalists and political opponents have all cautioned Pallister that, with the economy teetering on the razor-thin between recession and all-out depression, this is no time for layoffs.

The premier was clearly unmoved by these concerns.

He wasn't available to journalists on Monday when the Hydro layoffs were announced. On Tuesday, Pallister tried to explain the rationale behind the move. Largely, he confirmed that there is no clear rationale.

Pallister said that without layoffs, the province's economic recovery would take longer to realize and Hydro's debt — already swollen by capital projects — would continue to grow. He also repeated his assertion that in areas of government where there was less work to do, there should be fewer public servants fully employed so that government resources could be focused on items such as health care.

When he's asked to explain such decisions, Pallister is prone to the economic non sequitur: statements that don't seem to have any salient connection to the questions he's being asked. When you fact-check his arguments, they just don't hold up.

Are some Hydro workers being paid but not working? Hydro denies there has been a slowdown in the work.

He wasn't available to journalists on Monday when the Hydro layoffs were announced. On Tuesday, Pallister tried to explain the rationale behind the move. Largely, he confirmed that there is no clear rationale.

Do the Hydro layoffs aid Manitoba's economic recovery? Hardly. If anything, the more fully employed people we have in the province, the better it is for the economy.

Would avoiding layoffs significantly increase Hydro's debt? Only if there was a profound decline in revenues and at this point, that seems unlikely.

Do layoffs at Hydro free up more money for other parts of the pandemic response? The simple answer is no; unlike Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries, Hydro retains the gross majority of its operating profits. What it does contribute to general revenues through "water rental rates" — an ambiguously named annual transfer — is insignificant compared to expenditures in health care.

The most insulting aspect of Tuesday's news conference was Pallister's repeated claim that just about every other provincial government in Canada except for Nova Scotia and New Brunswick had laid off more civil servants than Manitoba. This is so patently untrue that you could almost see the premier's nose growing every time he said it.

In terms of provincial civil service layoffs, Alberta is clearly ahead. Premier Jason Kenney's decision to axe 25,000 education workers in April is the largest head-count reduction among all provinces. But with the Hydro layoffs and more expected to come, Manitoba is No.2 with a bullet. Most other provinces have only delivered token layoffs or furloughs.

Pallister is still expected to retire before the next provincial election in three-and-a-half year's time. Prior to the arrival of COVID-19, he had a clear path to a glorious retirement where the budget would have been balanced at least two years in a row, taxes of all kinds would have been cut and he would have delivered substantially improved fiscal stability.

The provincial government would be smaller with a substantially reduced capacity to deal with emergencies and compromised services but, hey, it would cost less.

The pandemic has totally derailed that idyllic final chapter. In three short months, all of the hard fiscal work of the previous four years has been largely erased. The deficit is likely to reach a historic, 10-figure level (although not nearly as high as he claims it will be) and it will take years to get back within eyesight of a balanced budget.

That is a scenario that Pallister cannot abide. So much so, that he is engaged in a futile, almost suicidal attempt to keep the province on its pre-pandemic fiscal path.

As he plots more layoffs on top of the downsizing at Hydro — and make no mistake, there are more coming — it's becoming increasingly hard to believe the premier believes there is no relationship between his indiscriminate austerity and a longer, deeper economic downturn. If he actually believes the gibberish he is dishing out to Manitobans on an almost daily basis, then we are surely doomed.

When we look back on this, no one should blame the premier for the economic woe that accompanied the pandemic, but history may remember him as the man who made it much, much worse. 

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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History

Updated on Tuesday, May 12, 2020 at 8:06 PM CDT: adds missing paragraph

9:13 PM: Fixes typo.

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