If anyone was hoping for clarity from the Pallister government on long-term plans for the Manitoba economy should caseloads, hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 continue to escalate... they didn’t find it in Wednesday’s speech from the throne.
Manitoba MLAs kicked-off the third session of the 42nd legislative assembly without the usual pomp and ceremony, normally marked by a heavy military presence in the halls of the legislature and the cacophony of a 15-gun artillery salute outdoors.
The dozens of invited guests that usually witness the speech inside the chamber, including members of Manitoba’s judiciary in formal attire, were conspicuous in their absence. Only a limited number of MLAs took their seats, spaced apart to respect social-distancing rules.
The speech contained a few new nuggets, including a pledge to eliminate the "pandemic deficit" within two terms, and a plan to crack down on "illegal" protests. But on a day when three new COVID-19 deaths were announced in the province, and a week where further constraints were imposed on bars and restaurants, there was no indication what the long-term plan is beyond a vague commitment to "protect Manitobans."
That’s problematic, considering what’s at stake: the future of entire industries such as the hospitality sector and retail businesses, as well as tens of thousands of jobs.
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The Pallister government will press ahead with educational reforms and a promised tax cut in the coming year, while tinkering with the welfare system and introducing legislation to curb "illegal blockades" of rail lines and roadways.
(factBox)In Wednesday's throne speech, delivered by Lt.-Gov. Janice Filmon, the government promised to continue to promote private liquor sales, instruct Manitoba Hydro to keep electricity rate hikes below three per cent, and eliminate an anticipated massive pandemic-induced budget deficit within two terms in office.
Will the recent spread of the novel coronavirus, mostly among the younger demographic, cause government to order the closure of some industries again? If so, which ones? How would those decisions be made?
As the number of local COVID-19 deaths rise and hospitalization rates climb, what would it take for the province to shut down the economy again to the extent it did early in the pandemic?
When asked that question Wednesday, Premier Brian Pallister didn’t directly answer. Instead, he said it’s up to Manitobans to do their part to help slow the spread of the virus and to look out for each other.
That’s not a plan, it’s a plea to the masses to do a better job of following public health orders.
What if that doesn’t happen? What contingencies are in place if the test positivity rate climbs past five per cent and hospitalization numbers exceed 50 or 100 in Winnipeg, or in any other region under the province’s pandemic response system?
If there is a blueprint, government isn’t sharing it. That’s troubling for businesses and employees who work in vulnerable sectors.
There was little in Wednesday's throne speech that directly addressed the pandemic. There were no new strategies on how to ramp up testing, to better protect the elderly and other vulnerable groups, or to help businesses on the verge of bankruptcy.
What contingencies are in place if the test positivity rate climbs past five per cent and hospitalization numbers exceed 50 or 100 in Winnipeg, or in any other region under the province’s pandemic response system?
It’s not that government has done a poor job so far managing the pandemic. With the exception of failing to properly support businesses and not-for-profit groups that have suffered during the recession, the province has done as well as can be expected.
The problem now is how to proceed to the next stage. It may be a year or more before a vaccine is available, but that remains uncertain.
In the meantime, what is the plan beyond muddling through the pandemic from week to week?
Manitoba can’t withstand another complete shutdown; it would be catastrophic. Which means Manitobans need to learn to live with this virus, including doing a better job of protecting the vulnerable.
The throne speech would have been the appropriate time to lay out that vision, to give Manitobans some sense of what scenarios lie ahead and what options government is considering.
This should have been a pandemic throne speech. Instead, it was little more than a rehash of past announcements and a repackaging of pre-pandemic agendas.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.