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Premier's folk songs and bison tales don't pay the bills

Opinion

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It's a daily exercise in futility.

Pretty much every day, we in the news business receive a media advisory indicating that Premier Brian Pallister will be appearing at a virtual news conference to announce new "COVID-19 measures." No other details are provided.

Each of these news conferences begins the same, with Pallister offering some sort of spoken-word folk song about the ferocity of the Manitoba spirit in the face of adversity. Tuesday, his latest COVID-19 measures news conference, was no different.

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister makes his way out of the press conference on April 21. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

RUTH BONNEVILLE

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister makes his way out of the press conference on April 21. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

"We will face this challenge together," Pallister said, "just like the Manitoba Bison turn together and face the storm and protect each other in doing that."

Even though most of the journalists listening into the virtual news conference know better, there is a moment when you're almost certain Pallister will finally deliver meaningful support to Manitobans who are being crushed under the weight of the economic shutdown. It is at that moment that the premier delivers his final demoralizing blow in the form of a minor gesture that avoids any direct or immediate help.

On Tuesday, there were two new underwhelming gestures.

First, Pallister announced a $16-million provincial contribution to a federal rent and mortgage support program but could not say when the program would start or who exactly would benefit.

The other new gesture was $37 million in Workers Compensation Board premium rebates. Whether that results in meaningful support remains to be seen; the $37 million will be divided among 34,000 Manitoba employers. For the smallest and most vulnerable businesses with the smallest payrolls, many of whom have been forced to close by public-health directive, this will not provide a lifeline.

It is at that moment that the premier delivers his final demoralizing blow in the form of a minor gesture that avoids any direct or immediate help.

Put them together and the WCB rebate and rent/mortgage assistance is just another in a string of disappointing and underwhelming announcements by a first minister who is clearly more concerned about the government balance sheet than the state of the province's economy.

Manitoba remains an outlier among Canadian provinces in the economic supports it is providing during the pandemic lockdown. Most other provinces have connected the economic dots, and are providing immediate financial support to ensure that businesses, and the jobs they provide, do not disappear when the suffocating measures are lifted.

In addition to his confounding daily announcements, Pallister's inability to acknowledge the longer-term economic consequences of his austerity can also be seen in a foolish directive to colleges and universities to reduce their staffing expenses by as much as 30 per cent. These institutions have already laid off some staff, including educational assistants, recreation staff and lab demonstrators.

But the new directive would force much deeper cuts at a time when most post-secondary schools are still operating at full capacity through virtual means. More importantly, it is yet another Pallister directive that will take money out of people's pockets and in so doing, risk prolonging the economic suffering that has come with the pandemic.

The premier may want to take notice that criticism of his fiscal and economic policies is not just coming from one end of the political spectrum. Yes, public-sector unions are understandably concerned about his proposals to furlough civil servants for up to three days a week. But other voices from other sectors are joining in the chorus of concern.

Sandy Riley, a former chair of the Manitoba Hydro-Electric Board and one of the province's highest-profile business executives, published a commentary in the Free Press which accused Pallister of failing to act to save the economy.

A string of disappointing and underwhelming announcements by a first minister who is clearly more concerned about the government balance sheet than the state of the province's economy.

Riley had a very public falling out with Pallister over Hydro policies. Even so, his critique of the province's pandemic response highlights the growing concern in the business community that the premier cannot see the damage that his policies are doing to the economy.

"The province has been sending the message that it is more concerned with protecting its own financial position than in helping many of its citizens who have been hurt through no fault of their own," Riley wrote.

"While I believe the federal government has the best tools to address the economic needs of Canadians, and that Manitobans should take full advantage of programs announced by the federal government, there is a vital role for the province to play in helping Manitobans survive this war."

Riley's concerns are mirrored by a new economic analysis by Lynne Fernandez and Jesse Hajer from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. The analysis estimates Pallister's plan to have provincial civil servants work two days a week and draw Employment Insurance benefits — a plan, if approved, that would result in a roughly 25 per cent cut in pay — would eliminate up to $1.1 billion in labour income, as much as $189 million in provincial tax revenues and cut provincial GDP by up to $1.5 billion.

"If Manitoba spends instead of cutting, the GDP increases and increases our capacity to weather the crisis, grow in the future and repay the debt once the economy recovers," Fernandez said in the report.

Pallister likes to talk about how his government's response has been shaped by constant consultation with business leaders. However, increasingly, it's become obvious that while he may be consulting with those people, he is not listening to them.

Manitobans — whether they are small-business owners or government-employed public servants — want direct and immediate financial support to weather the current crisis in the hopes that it allows the overall economy to recover more quickly and more completely.

They do not want folk songs and tales of stoic bison weathering a storm.

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.

Read full biography

History

Updated on Tuesday, April 21, 2020 at 9:47 PM CDT: Fixest typo

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