Manitoba·Analysis

Brian Pallister's government begins to show true colours

The Progressive Conservative government's second session features a marked turn from its first few months in power.

After a soft start, new-ish PC leader gives glimpse of knock-down drag-out to come

Premier Brian Pallister's knocking three times as the government squares for fight with unions. (CBC)

Premier Brian Pallister likes a good old-fashioned sound effect when deflecting a shot from the opposition during question period.

The PC leader often responds to a question about cuts, frontline service workers, collective agreements, or the like with a quick anecdote about previous government members in election mode, knocking on doors and promising what they can't deliver and the province can't afford. The question from the opposition rarely gets answered, but a seasoned audience will know what's coming next.

And on cue his faithful benches rap their desks with an enthusiastic "knock  knock, knock," just at the right moment.

Longtime legislature watchers would know how far back into opposition days this particular tribal drumbeat has been going on, but the government has been thumping their desks routinely since being elected — they played the knock knock joke three times in the space of one question period this week.

A turn for the government

But this debate-team strategy or Montessori school game for after nap and snack-time is one of the last vestiges of the PC government in stand-pat, get a-look-at-the-books mode from the last session. The end of this session marks a new turn for this government. 

After a first few months of checking boxes on election promises and a ready-from-the-oven budget, now the gloves are coming off and Manitoba's public sector unions are squaring up for a fight. 

Pallister is working this battle on two fronts, one a call for a "discussion" on how unions with signed agreements can help wage a war on the deficit. Secondly, he's proposing legislation to proscribe future labour agreements (something of a poison pill if you are looking for a raise) so that any settlements will have to respect the province's ability to pay. It's a strategy that's both coming and going on labour agreements.

On the first, Pallister claims not to have said directly that "wage freezes" are coming for existing contracts. No one in organized labour is buying that one for a second and the idea is a non-starter for most.

"Absolutely not. I don't think Manitobans would entertain opening up negotiated contracts. Contracts that are entered into freely, between the employer and the employee and negotiated and signed off on, are deals. And a deal's a deal," said Kelly Moist of the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

CUPE's Kelly Moist: " a deal's a deal." (CBC News )

It's the same refrain from the Manitoba Government Employees Union's top negotiator, Sheila Gordon. Forget about it.

"From our perspective and I think from anyone's perspective when you sign a contract, the expectation is both sides will live up to it and I can assure you we intend to do that," Gordon told CBC News.

Pallister's plan to squeeze might have formed months ago once he got a proper look at the books. Perhaps the province's mounting debt and deficit loomed in his mind as he rode his bike on long rides around the province this summer.

He certainly campaigned on wresting the deficit dragon to the ground.

But it's possible his view has been keened by the dark financial clouds looming on the world's financial horizon. Money, you see, is starting to get more expensive. And Manitoba has borrowed a lot of it but still needs more.

Trump, Brexit and years of low interest rates are starting to scare central banks and lenders into a mood for raising interest rates. 

And costs to borrow big sums, so-called "long money" — such as what governments and big utilities (such as Manitoba Hydro, let's say) need —  are starting to rumble higher.

Rate hikes tend to focus the mind when you are borrowing billions.

Pallister likes to talk in common-sense jargon when trying to make political points. He sprinkles his rhetoric with phrases such as "Manitobans are the best shoppers and we will be too," and "off the cabinet table and on to the kitchen tables of Manitobans."

But his talking points about "getting all hands on deck," and "discussions" and "dialogue" with unions regarding fiscal problems don't quite add up.

The premier had MGEU president Michelle Gawronsky for coffee on Broadway just before the throne speech a couple of weeks ago. According to her there was no talk of legislation or voluntary cuts to wages or getting on board with Team Pallister and the deficit-slayers.

MGEU president Michelle Gawronsky was in Pallister's office days before throne speech but got no warning of things to come. (CBC News)

Instead the call to arms was really made in a scrum of reporters after question period this week. 

It's an odd tactic because it starts any consultation that might come with organized labour with an invitation that was broadcast on CBC or written in the local papers.

This is not to say that Pallister's eyeball-to-eyeball with public sector unions is at the heart of his agenda, but it will be a big feature during more than three months without a sitting session at the legislature. Expect some of Manitoba's biggest unions to be there and be loud.

Pallister also has a made-in-Manitoba carbon price formula to create, a rancorous debate to have with the feds over healthcare funding and hanging chads such as the fate of the Port of Churchill and the rail line to it.

All roads in Brian Pallister's Manitoba are narrowing down to a budget in the spring that will likely be something this province hasn't seen in many years.

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