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'Tricky business'

Lack of transparency may hurt Pallister government's credibility

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Early in the pandemic, the province was careful not to let the public see any dire official projections of COVID-19 deaths in Manitoba, but it gladly shared frightening fiscal forecasts.

Those decisions may have now eroded public trust, some political experts say.

For weeks, the Pallister government has warned the province faces a pandemic-fuelled $5-billion deficit (more than three times higher than a recent RBC report predicts for Manitoba). The public sector was told to brace for cuts of up to 30 per cent in non-essential services, before the government tabbed the cuts at closer to two per cent.

Residents have been bracing for economic doom, but now that the province appears to have weathered the initial storm and is reopening the economy, don't expect them all to thank the premier, says one analyst watching from afar.

Premier Brian Pallister's government has warned the province faces a pandemic-fuelled $5-billion deficit

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Premier Brian Pallister's government has warned the province faces a pandemic-fuelled $5-billion deficit

"I think the government has lost a little credibility," said University of Calgary political science Prof. Lisa Young.

"The dilemma for conservative governments who signalled they wanted to cut in advance of the pandemic is that it looks as though they’re using the pandemic as an a excuse to do it."

Tory Premier Brian Pallister has made it his mission to improve Manitoba’s fiscal situation, and has never shied away from cost-cutting.

"Timing is everything," Young said Thursday. "Because the Manitoba government asked so quickly for the public sector to think about very major cuts, before it was clear what the magnitude of the pandemic would be, it has exposed them as looking as though they were overreacting or over-preparing for the reality of the situation.

"The dilemma for conservative governments who signalled they wanted to cut in advance of the pandemic is that it looks as though they’re using the pandemic as an a excuse to do it." — University of Calgary political science Prof. Lisa Young

"It damages the image of the government in some way," Young said. "Seeing as they now have enough money to send $200 to every senior regardless of income, it raises the question about what the government’s priorities are here."

On Thursday, Pallister couldn't explain why the RBC fiscal outlook for Manitoba predicts a $1.5-billion shortfall due to the pandemic, compared to the government's $5-billion figure: "That was an honest projection by our treasury board officials early on."

Procuring personal protective equipment alone will cost close to $1 billion, he said. By mid-April, the province had spent $400 million, and that number is expected to grow, a government spokeswoman said Thursday.

"As we review our numbers and experience the reality of this pandemic instead of the theory of it, we'll be able to give you better numbers," the premier said. "I won't apologize for giving you what we thought at the time was a pretty accurate number."

And he shouldn't, said Yaroslav Baran, managing partner of Ottawa-based strategic advisory firm Earnscliffe.

“Seeing as they now have enough money to send $200 to every senior regardless of income, it raises the question about what the government’s priorities are here.” — Lisa Young

"It’s a tricky business for politicians when they get into the prediction game, but there is a certain valid expectation from the public, from the news media, and from the opposition. So it is often not avoidable," said Baran, a campaign communications chief for former prime minister Stephen Harper.

"If you are going to get into the fiscal forecasting game for crises or emergencies, you definitely don’t want to underestimate costs," he said. "You want to overestimate.

"It’s far more forgivable after the fact if you ended up underspending in relation to worst-case predictions, rather than blowing right through them."

That may be a good political strategy in normal operations, but not during a crisis, said the head of the political studies department at the University of Manitoba.

"Governments should be more transparent in a pandemic," Prof. Royce Koop said. "Now is not the time to have these manoeuvres, these tricks.

"People want politicians to be honest — like what you saw from (Premier) Doug Ford in Ontario, which has a much tougher situation (more than 1,400 deaths, compared to seven in Manitoba). He seemed to figure out really quickly that people want more, not less, transparency."

Ontario released its COVID-19 projections, including the scenarios where the number of potential deaths showed a 500 per cent variance. Manitoba refused to release its worst-case projections for COVID-19 until after it determined the health-care system wouldn't be overwhelmed.

Manitoba had the good fortune to record its first positive COVID-19 test much later than other jurisdictions, and the good sense to shut down quickly so the health-care impact of the pandemic has been limited, said Young.

"The bottom line here is there is a good-news story... Any government should've been able to take a victory lap."

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Reporter

Carol Sanders’ reporting on newcomers to Canada has made international headlines, earned national recognition but most importantly it’s shared the local stories of the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home.

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History

Updated on Thursday, May 7, 2020 at 7:46 PM CDT: Updates subhead

11:15 PM: Fixes typo.

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