We learned a lot about Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Pallister during his first three years in government. Chief among those lessons is that he is a man who loves to have his cake and eat it, too.
In the 2016 election, on his way to the largest majority in Manitoba political history, Pallister promised voters they would get more and better services at a lower cost, through efficiencies and a new disciplined approach to expenditures.
Did voters really think he could pull off a more-for-less transformation of government? Or, did they know and not care that Pallister’s central pledge, which was drenched in have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too optimism, was a pipe dream?
Either way, as he heads into a new election campaign, voters should know that the premier has not accomplished what he set out to do. In short, Pallister got some of his cake but hasn’t really had an opportunity to eat and enjoy it. At least not yet.
If not more and better for less, what did we get from Pallister?
Take away the hyperbole and the hysterics, and the most objective observation to be made about the first three years of Pallister government is that while the deficit has been reduced by more than half and the provincial sales tax has been reduced by one point, the quantity and quality of core services offered by government has been more or less sustained.
That is not to say there wasn’t some slippage.
Cuts to municipal grants and piddling support to school divisions have triggered property tax increases. Wait lists for elective surgeries have grown. So, too has the province’s infrastructure deficit as funding has been cut significantly.
There is less being done in some areas, but that’s to be expected when government is battling a deficit. However, when you look at all available information, core government services have not been crippled as critics had forecast. That’s remarkable given the robust austerity that Pallister has imposed on government expenditures.
In the Pallister government’s first three years, expenditures grew by an average of just one per cent. That austerity is certainly reflected in education and health.
In the first three years in power, funding for public education averaged just over one per cent annually, and just under one per cent annually in health. In the current 2019-20 fiscal year, total spending on health care could very easily recede to a level that would actually be lower than 2017-18.
And yet, even with this austerity, the health care system continues to offer Manitobans a quantity and quality of service that is arguably comparable to previous years. There are a raft of concerns triggered by the clumsy efforts to convert three hospital emergency departments to urgent care centres. However the problems that have arisen in those facilities — overcrowded ERs, nursing shortages — are not related to funding policy.
You would think that "doing the same with less money while stabilizing the treasury" would be a winning campaign slogan. Unfortunately, Pallister continues to claim that Manitobans are getting more or better for less. And there just isn’t any evidence to support that claim.
Pallister has certainly tried to find evidence to support his more-for-less assertion, but that typically involves cherry-picking metrics from the NDP government and heavily massaging the corresponding metrics from his own government. One extra dollar in health care or education is a "record investment" in these core services. Infrastructure spending under the Tories is higher than what the NDP spent, if you ignore the last three years they were in power. Manitoba is the only province to experience a reduction in ER wait times, ignoring the fact that Manitobans still have a longer wait on average than patients in other provinces.
Unfounded as well is Pallister’s assertion that the improvement in the province’s bottom line is from sheer force of will. The real progress in reducing the deficit has come from an unprecedented increase in transfer payments, including equalization.
Over the past three years, the Pallister government received a cumulative bump in federal transfer payments of $730 million; compare that to the previous six years of NDP government, when the cumulative total was $88 million. Pallister should not be criticized for having good luck, but he should not be lauded for it, either.
Add in an imposed wage freeze on provincial civil servants and a complete absence of natural disasters since he came to power, and you have a government that has made measurable improvement in one area (the deficit) while treading water everywhere else.
That is an accomplishment in and of itself; it’s just not the accomplishment that Pallister wants to highlight in this election campaign.
In 2016, Pallister got more than half of all votes cast. In this election, it’s likely that more than half of voters will protest Pallister’s austerity by supporting other parties. That still leaves enough votes for Pallister to cruise to a second majority.
On his way to that goal, it would be refreshing if Pallister owned the austerity and limited his claims of accomplishment. In his first term, he bristled when someone tried to apply the adjective "austere" to his government. After three years in power, we know that is more or less what he delivered.
So, go ahead premier, say it loud: I’m austere and I’m proud.
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.