Pallister during the pandemic: Protecting the public purse, ceding the safety net to Ottawa

Physical distancing measures in Manitoba appear to be working and enjoy broad acceptance by the public, even if they are not popular. The socio-economic response by the Brian Pallister's Progressive Conservative government is much more difficult to appraise.

Manitoba's feisty premier has positioned himself on the sidelines of the socio-economic response to COVID-19

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister has been front and centre throughout the pandemic. At the same time, he has allowed Ottawa to lead the socio-economic response in his province. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

More than a month after Manitoba reported its first case of COVID-19, the people responsible for public health in this province have proven more than competent.

The COVID-19 growth curve that saw caseloads double every four days in March is now as flat as the view in any direction from the top of Virden's grain elevator.

Hospitalizations due to the disease in Manitoba are equal to the number of players on a pair of curling teams.

The number of active cases of the disease is dropping slowly and steadily, which is precisely what Manitobans need to see if they ever want to stand in line again for ice cream at BDI on Jubilee Avenue without starting at Pembina Highway.

The physical distancing measures put in place by chief public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin appear to be working and enjoy broad acceptance by the public, even if they are not popular.

The socio-economic response by the Brian Pallister's Progressive Conservative government, on the other hand, is much more difficult to appraise. And it is clearly Pallister's government, especially as intelligent and capable ministers such as Cameron Friesen and Heather Stefanson have become as scarce as Winnipeg Transit passengers during the pandemic.

During the first two weeks of this plague, Pallister appeared to be sitting on his sizable hands while his counterparts in other provinces unveiled aid package after aid package.

Throughout the month of March, the premier appeared reluctant to crack open the provincial piggy bank, either out of fiscal prudence during the early stages of the pandemic — or because he was still stunned by the pandemic-induced collapse of his long-term plan to balance the provincial books.

Manitoba premier Brian Pallister walks to his office after an emergency COVID-19 session at the Manitoba Legislature on Wednesday. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

At the beginning of April, the premier loosened up the provincial purse strings to provide money to protect homeless people exposed to COVID-19 and to purchase hospital supplies. These are not luxuries, but necessities during a pandemic.

Now, a full month into what's become a disaster for every segment of the economy that doesn't involve streaming video and door-to-door food delivery, the premier's primary concern continues to be the provincial balance sheet.

The reduced work week he's proposed for Crown corporation employees could save hundreds of millions of dollars. That would take a sizable dent out of what he has described as a potential $5-billion deficit this year.

Pallister's ask of public servants is considerable. He's portrayed it as a fair sacrifice in light of the employment bloodbath taking place in the private sector.

Tinder, but for volunteers

What the premier has offered to Manitobans in the way of aid, however, is on an entirely different scale — say, like the Stonehenge set in This Is Spinal Tap, or Paul Rudd's Ant-Man character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Early on in the pandemic, the premier announced the creation of a volunteer-finder app that seems redundant in the age when most Manitobans tend to multiple social networks.

As of Wednesday, 6,370 people registered to use what could be described as Tinder for volunteers. 

The province also awarded a $4.5-million contract to a company called Morneau Shepell to deliver online therapy to Manitobans suffering from mental-health issues during the pandemic.

Presumably, one large multinational company based in Toronto is better positioned to meet the needs of physically distanced Manitobans than a number of psychologists based in Winnipeg, Brandon, Steinbach or Thompson.

The province also awarded a $4-million contract to homegrown call-centre company 24/7 In Touch to help businesses and non-profit organizations access federal wage subsidies and the Canada Emergency Business Account.

"On the surface, people would say, 'Well, why are you simply tendering to promote a federal program while we're all in this together?'" Pallister said earlier this week, recognizing the unusual optics of spending provincial money to help Manitobans access federal cash.

"If you understand that there are literally billions of dollars at stake, you'll understand that investing one one-thousandth of that money and promoting and co-ordinating the program to help Manitobans makes good sense, rather than duplicating a program or topping it up."

Falling through the cracks

Some small businesses cried foul, claiming they're falling through the cracks of federal aid programs.

Pallister, however, insisted there's nothing he can do to help.

"We can't possibly design a plan that effectively fills in the cracks when we don't understand where the cracks lie," Pallister said on Thursday.

"As recently as yesterday, the federal employment minister announced other changes to the federal plan. More recently, this morning, the prime minister announced other changes to the federal plan. Each time that happens that creates uncertainty as to where the cracks may lie."

What Manitoba's premier found impossible was accomplished a week ago in Saskatchewan, where Premier Scott Moe's small-C conservative government is offering businesses up to $5,000, with no strings attached.

Perhaps there is no point for Manitoba to offer something similar at this stage. Some Manitoba businesses may have suffered too much already for a little bit of liquidity to make a difference.

But that's not the point. The premier's primary objective does not appear to be aid.

Health care the top priority

His first priority is health care. His second appears to be reducing the pandemic-induced financial hemmorhaging to the point where Manitoba can recover more quickly from what's expected to be a brutal, drawn-out recession.

For example, there is a provincewide effort to claw back or eliminate spending on all government service providers that are not deemed essential during this pandemic. An internal government memo, obtained by CBC News, asked every department to tally up the potential savings.

On Thursday, when Pallister was asked to state how much money the province could expect to save from this exercise, the premier claimed this squeeze on service providers is the normal course of government business.

To be clear, cancelling or clawing back contracts midstream is not normal government business. There is nothing normal about a pandemic — and the premier can not be faulted for that.

Time will only tell whether the fit and feisty Pallister is right to remain relatively idle while Justin Trudeau's Liberals — who have never been afraid of spending money — weave together a pandemic social-safety net.


Bartley Kives

Senior reporter, CBC Manitoba

Bartley Kives joined CBC Manitoba in 2016. Prior to that, he spent three years at the Winnipeg Sun and 18 at the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about politics, music, food and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?