Manitoba throne speech promises public service transformation, changes to health care and child welfare

Manitoba's Progressive Conservative government is setting its sights on streamlining the civil service, reducing the number of children in care and a continued transformation of health care as it enters its third session.

Throne speech marks 3rd session of 41st sitting of Manitoba Legislature

Premier Brian Pallister says the province will transform its civil service and experiment with innovative ideas in the throne speech on Tuesday. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Manitoba's Progressive Conservative government is setting its sights on streamlining the civil service, reducing the number of children in care and a continued transformation of health care as it enters its third session.

In his throne speech on Tuesday, Premier Brian Pallister announced a new "public service transformation strategy," as well as intentions to reduce the "spans and layers of senior management" in the civil service as part of his government's efforts to improve Manitoba's financial outlook.

Lt.-Gov. Janice Filmon presented the speech, which marks the opening of the third session of the 41st sitting of the Manitoba Legislature

​"The reality is that caring about finances — as everyone you come from did and as all you do — is not a signal of anything but genuine compassion," Premier Brian Pallister told reporters during a media briefing before Filmon read the speech on Tuesday.

"We have to care, particularly about vulnerable people. And to do that, we have to manage well and sustainably. To do that, we have to remember that it isn't just the vulnerable today that matter."

The premier opened his remarks to media by extending condolences to the family of Cpl. Nolan Caribou, an infantryman with the Royal Winnipeg Rifles who died during a training exercise at CFB Shilo in Manitoba on Saturday.

It was the first time Pallister has addressed reporters since returning from a disastrous trip to New Mexico on Friday, during which he broke his arm following a serious fall while on a hike on Monday.

He told reporters his government's plan to trim and improve the civil service goes "way beyond" a previously announced plan to cut the provincial civil service by eight per cent over three years, primarily through attrition, as recommended by a recently-released review of provincial finances from consulting firm KPMG.

"It's much more than that, and it's pretty exciting," the premier said.

"This is the kind of opportunity that presents itself especially in the context of an aging workforce," Pallister said. "There's an opportunity for us to build a better, more functioning, more cohesive civil service team, and there are ways we want to explore to do that, and there will be more details forthcoming than I'll give you today."

In October, the province said it employs approximately 14,900 civil servants, and roughly eight per cent of them — about 1,200 people — leave the workforce voluntarily each year, through retirement or resignation.

Pallister wouldn't rule out layoffs as another way to slim down the service. But he preferred to focus a more optimistic outlook on the changes, stressing the importance of creating a dynamic and revitalized service that attracts employees.

The throne speech also promised a review of provincial and municipal service responsibilities to find any existing "overlap and duplication," in an effort to streamline service delivery on points including road maintenance and renewal, snow clearing, water control, and drainage "at the most appropriate level of government."

Pallister said that might mean municipalities take on more responsibilities.

Manitoba NDP leader Wab Kinew said the throne speech on Tuesday left him with concerns about jobs, health care and Indigenous children in foster care. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

"It's a real possibility," he said. He pointed to taxicab governance as a service that's better provided by municipalities and said the province has been guilty of "snoopervision" on some municipal funding deals in the past.

The throne speech said the province is in the process of refining a framework on public-private partnerships on public infrastructure — including schools — as per a "value-for-money" protocol guiding spending on capital projects.

Wab Kinew, leader of the Manitoba Opposition NDP, said talk of streamlining and trimming signals to him that there are cuts on the horizon.

"Sounds like to me they're going to try and justify more cuts to the city, even beyond what we've heard in the past week in terms of cuts to transit, cuts to the infrastructure money that's going to the city," he said.

Last week, Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman told residents that widespread cuts to the city's transit program might be coming. Earlier this year, the province announced it will no longer cover half of Winnipeg Transit's operating costs.

"It's really concerning that Pallister is not listening to the people of Manitoba that are telling him to stop with the cuts to health care and to jobs," Kinew said.

Health care, child welfare also highlighted

The speech also reiterated the province's previous commitment to reduce the number of children in care, promising "fundamental reforms to the legislation governing Manitoba's child-welfare system." The province promised a "complete overhaul" of the system in October.

Community-driven prevention efforts, reduced barriers to guardianship and more funding for results are all identified as ways to do do that, including an effort to empower non-governmental individuals and groups to contribute to tackling the problem.

The upcoming session will include changes to the Healthy Child Strategy, Social Enterprise Strategy, Non-Profit Strategy and Social Impact Procurement Strategy to make better use of research and engage community members on the issues, the throne speech said. The government also plans to change the Child and Family Services Act to make it easier for foster parents to become guardians of kids in care.

Currently in Manitoba, there are about 11,000 children in care — the highest rate in the country. The number has grown by 85 per cent over the past 10 years, and nearly 90 per cent of the children are Indigenous.

Kinew said no Manitoba government has done enough to help children in care, but criticized the Progressive Conservatives in particular for neglecting to include plans to keep Indigenous children in Indigenous families, as per the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's Calls to Action.

"We've seen time and time again in this country's history that if you sever the connections to family and community that kids are worse off for it," he said.

The throne speech also promised the launch of a new Early Learning and Child Care strategy, the elimination of red tape on early childhood educators, and to boost literacy and numeracy in Manitoba kids.

Manitobans can also expect the government to stay the course on its promised transformation and co-ordination of health care across the province. The speech pointed to a provincial clinical plan, central co-ordination of medical services, and a new Priority Home Care Program as items to expect over the coming months.

Pallister said health care is possibly "the most difficult and demanding portfolio of government." His government is currently embarking on what Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen has called the "most significant change in the health-care system in a generation," including the closure of three Winnipeg emergency rooms.

"You're dealing with people who are in pain, and families who are anxious and fearful. But to play to that fear and fight for the preservation of the system we had, that's cowardice.… We can have a better system if we face the challenges of making those changes that we need to make."

The throne speech says mental health and addictions need to be at the core of the changes. The province has already enlisted experts to create a new mental health strategy, led by Dr. Brian Rush.

Pallister's speech said the province is exploring the implementation of peer support programming in emergency rooms to support people in mental health crises. The idea has been championed by some mental health advocates and Goertzen said last year that it would be up for consideration.

Climate, investment, reconciliation

The 14-page, 40-minute speech included a variety of other provisions, organized under the three goals of fixing finances, repairing services and rebuilding the province's economy. Priorities include agriculture, reconiliation — including a public engagement process to develop an action plan — and the recently-announced "made-in-Manitoba" climate plan.

The government says it will strengthen provincial whistleblower protections, educate residents on risks posed by the upcoming legalization of cannabis, try to speed up the justice system and introduce a new provincial housing strategy in cooperation with non-profit groups and the private sector.

It's also eyeballing a restructuring of economic development efforts to make investing in Manitoba businesses easier. Currently, Pallister said potential investors are faced with dozens of investment and business organizations and several meetings before they can bring money to the province.

"This is an ambitious program. But the challenges we face are many. Many have been ignored or mishandled too long. Others are emerging and international in scope," Filmon read.

"These times call for ambition. And they call for courage."

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