Pallister expected to shift gears, focus on growth in state-of-the-province speech

Cost cutting and health reform have dominated the first three years of Premier Brian Pallister's government, but economic development is expected to move to the top of the agenda when he delivers his state of the province address.

First 3 years of PC government have been dominated by cost-cutting and health care

Premier Brian Pallister's last state-of-the-province speech promised an economic development strategy in six months. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Premier Brian Pallister says Thursday's state-of-the-province speech won't give him enough time to address all of the woes and wonders of Manitoba's economy.

"I am only given a little bit of time," Pallister told reporters Wednesday on the eve of his third economic outlook in front of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce.

"I am going to be addressing a number of issues I think are of great importance," he said.

Those issues may or may not include rapidly changing technologies, mining layoffs in the north and other threats to the provincial economy.

Almost exactly one year ago, a battered Pallister delivered his last state-of-the-province speech.

He was bruised not by the currents of political crisis nor stormy economic issues, but a slip and fall on a New Mexico hike that left him with a wing tied to his side and weeks of recovery at home.

Growth has taken a backseat

On Thursday, Pallister will take the same stage, physical dexterity restored and desert hike now behind him, but facing a mostly business crowd looking for direction and leadership down a different path — one that defines how to grow Manitoba's economy.

As the Progressive Conservatives round the corner into their third year in government, economic development appears to have been a distant cousin to the priorities of balancing the budget and health care evolution.

Depending where you line up ideologically, those first goals have been met with some measurable success or are the harbinger of more bad news to come.

The Canadian Institute for Health Information's latest wait time data shows improvements and the province's deficit is dropping with every quarter of the business calendar.

If there is a dispute on the speed of deficit reduction, it comes from the province's own accountant. Auditor General Norm Ricard believes the number is actually lower than the government is telling us.

The slow, unrelenting march to the Pallister government's singular election promise of reducing the provincial sales tax by one per cent is happening almost in real time.

PST reduction 

Meeting that pledge appears to be almost an obsession as the government trims senior and middle management, tweaks programs, privatizes some services and walks away from, delays or outright cancels promises made by the previous NDP government.

The PC government bobbed, weaved and dodged its way out of the Churchill rail crisis without spending much more than a few dollars. The success at restoring the service to the province's only Arctic port has been celebrated without the participation of a single Manitoba cabinet minister.

Eventually such trimming will find the government cutting into its own bone and that's why some — and that includes both opposition parties and many in Manitoba's business community — believe a serious effort at growing the economy is necessary.

Premier Pallister promises his third state-of-the-province speech will address economic development for Manitoba 'in a serious way.'

It would be a wonderful world if it weren't needed, but Manitoba's economy, overly reliant on transfers from Ottawa and its own dollops of government spending and lacking the throw-weight of big cities with large populations, must hustle for attention from out-of-province investors and somehow encourage its own entrepreneurs to stay and build.

A $400-million pea plant near Portage la Prairie by French company Roquette and a recent commitment by McCain Foods to Manitoba potatoes are welcome but aren't enough.

The PCs have made some economic development noise by launching various private-sector-authored studies. The Look North task force released its findings more than a year ago, but even co-chair Chuck Davidson, president of the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce, admitted at the time "this is a starting point."

Pit that against the looming job losses in Thompson and Flin Flon and it's easy to believe the economic stability of the north is in serious jeopardy of being hoovered away.

Pallister's speech Thursday is expected to focus on the efforts of former Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce head Dave Angus and Payworks CEO Barb Gamey. 

One year ago, at the last state-of-the-province speech, he said they had six months to report back.

Their marching orders come from a long-winded, chart-heavy study completed by consultant company Deloitte.

The thrust of that report was Manitoba's economic development strategy was being done and provincially financed between too many agencies, with little co-ordination and scant oversight.

Pallister has suggested several times this year's speech will signal the end of provincial support for some of those organizations.

For the record, there are three agencies (Economic Development Winnipeg, the World Trade Centre and Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters) listed by Deloitte as receiving Manitoba tax money to operate. Combined they get a total of just over $2.5 million.

Travel Manitoba and a variety of provincially administered funds get approximately another $22 million to pass around, grow the economy and promote the province.

Perhaps there is a lack of direction and focus that needs to be reined in on economic development efforts, but to put the spending into perspective, this year the provincial government wrote off $82 million in loans to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers football club to build Investors Group Field.

Beyond reorganizing how economic development is delivered and who does it, some other things many might hope for in Thursday's speech:

  • How will Manitoba face the coming changes to manufacturing and service delivery from artificial intelligence and robotics? 
  • Is there anything Manitoba can do to grow jobs while adapting to climate change?
  • What can the province do now, before thousands of mining jobs leave Manitoba's north?
  • How can the province leverage the work the federal government, communities of the north and the private sector have done to restore rail service to Churchill?

They might be answers Manitoba will need, sooner than later.

About the Author

Sean Kavanagh

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Born and raised in Winnipeg, Sean has had a chance to live in some of Canada's other beautiful places (Whistler, B.C., and Lake of the Woods, Ont.) as well as in Europe and the United States. In more than a decade of reporting, Sean has covered some of the seminal events in Manitoba, from floods to elections, including a stint as the civic affairs reporter responsible for city hall.