OTTAWA — Manitoba’s sole cabinet minister is challenging the provincial government to spend existing pots of money before demanding Ottawa increase its health transfers.
On Thursday, Premier Brian Pallister shot back, saying the federal Liberals have ignored provinces' desperate need for more health-care funding in the Sept. 23 throne speech, which he claimed was a "buffet" list written by young people.
In 2016, the Liberals opted to keep a Stephen Harper-era cap on transfers to provinces for health care, except with a top-up for mental health and home care. Manitoba is entitled to $109 million for home care through to spring 2022, half of which should have already been spent.
However, Dan Vandal (Saint Boniface—Saint Vital), who is northern affairs minister, wonders if Manitoba has actually spent that money — and the province would not say Thursday.
"I'm not sure Manitobans are seeing increased home care services based on our past investments," Vandal told the Free Press. He had also criticized long lines for COVID-19 testing in Manitoba, despite Ottawa allocating a separate $109 million to triple the province’s testing capacity.
"Our government needs to make sure that when we invest specific dollars in specific health issues that that money is actually spent in those areas."
The premier responded the Liberals are more focused on public relations stunts than helping people.
"When Ottawa invests its money under this government, they want to get noticed when they do it. That’s a problem," Pallister told reporters in the legislature Thursday, fresh from an extended visit to the nation's capital.
"I'm amazed at how quickly people, who we elected from Manitoba to represent us in Ottawa, turn around and start representing Ottawa back to Manitoba," he said of Vandal.
The federal Liberals have an unrealistic view of how much debt they can service under low borrowing rates, Pallister said, recalling the devastating toll soaring interest rates took on debtors in the 1980s.
"I think yesterday's throne speech was written by some younger people who haven't been through higher interest-rate times," the premier said, arguing younger generations will bear that debt.
"We can’t just throw money at every single thing."
The province did not provide an accounting when asked how much of the earmarked home care cash Manitoba has spent.
"The health department and the regional health authorities are in the process of finalizing the 2019-20 cost data to be formally submitted to the federal government on Oct. 1," wrote a spokesman for provincial Health Minister Cameron Friesen.
That had NDP Leader Wab Kinew saying Manitobans aren’t getting bang for Ottawa’s buck.
"The federal government can provide funding for Manitoba, but with this government, it doesn’t actually reach the bedside," he told reporters, while also decrying the long lines at local testing sites.
"Only now that it’s becoming a media issue are they scrambling to try and respond."
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised to hold a meeting this fall with premiers about the Canada Health Transfer, but with the COVID-19 crisis compounding existing health-care challenges presented by an aging population, Pallister said he needs Ottawa to step up soon, noting wait times for surgeries had more than doubled in the past 20 years.
"The status quo is not sustainable," Pallister said moments before a call with fellow premiers Thursday afternoon.
The leaders later issued a release saying they were unanimously disappointed the throne speech did not promise more health-care dollars.
They also took aim at Health Canada for being an international laggard on getting rapid testing approved, blaming the regulator for the long lines across Canada to access the slower, genetic-material testing.
— with files from Larry Kusch and Carol Sanders
Parliamentary bureau chief
In Ottawa, Dylan enjoys snooping through freedom-of-information requests and asking politicians: "What about Manitoba?"