Analysis

Good ship Pallister has yet to set sail

Confused about the tenor of the Progressive Conservatives' first Manitoba budget? Bartley Kives and Sean Kavanagh look at where the Tories are going.

First PC budget resembles last NDP spending plan, but don't expect that next year

CBC reporters Sean Kavanagh and Bartley Kives break down the PC's first budget 3:58

Imagine, for a moment, a provincial government that spends more money on environmental science, claws back tax rebates for wealthier seniors and spends more money on every provincial ministry except Manitoba Agriculture.

Who would this band of tree-hugging, spendthrift social democrats be? Why, none other than Brian Pallister's Progressive Conservatives, who have tabled a provincial budget that appears so similar to the last few New Democratic Party budgets, voters may be confused.

On Tuesday, Finance Minister Cameron Friesen tabled a budget that will leave Manitoba swimming in more than twice as much red ink at the end of 2016-17 than his predecessor, the NDP's Greg Dewar, projected for the end of the current fiscal.
Manitoba's new Finance Minister, Cameron Friesen, speaks to reporters before the provincial budget is read at the Manitoba Legislature in Winnipeg on Tuesday. (Bert Savard/CBC)

Sure, the actual 2015-16 deficit will be closer to $1 billion. But the fact remains when you consider year-over-year projections, the first Pallister spending plan calls for a bigger hit to the provincial books than the final Greg Selinger budget.

This must be confusing to what's left of the Manitoba NDP, who spent most of the recent provincial election campaign trying to paint Pallister and his party as a bunch of crazed neo-conservative slash-and-burn artists who wanted nothing more to than take a pair of rusty garden shears to the provincial budget and lay off public employees by the thousands.

Instead, the Tories plan to increase overall spending to $13.5 billion, up roughly $600 million from the NDP's $12.9 billion last year.

The PCs plan to spend about $900,000 more on environmental scientists than the NDP, prompting University of Winnipeg ecologist Scott Forbes to tweet the "environment (is) a clear priority for PCs in year 1."

The Tories plan to roll back school-tax rebates for seniors with family incomes above $40,000 in a manner than even interim NDP leader Flor Marcelino said she found acceptable.

Marcelino, however, warned the provincial budget is like an "iceberg" floating in the fiscal waters and Pallister-government cuts lurk somewhere beneath the surface.

Marcelino, however, offered little in the way of specifics. But expect there to be a growing unease about what the Tories will actually cut, when they do begin to cut in earnest.

Not everyone stood with their hands in their pockets after the budget was tabled.

The Manitoba Energy Justice Coalition, for example, called the PCs ditherers on climate change. Pat Wege at the Manitoba Child Care Association said she didn't see any money to fill more than 10,000 empty child-care spaces.

And the Manitoba Green Party, who are rarely seen or heard between elections, accused the Pallister government of failing to either reduce poverty or protect the environment, notwithstanding that extra cash for wildlife and fisheries science.

It's a safe bet Pallister actually does have a good idea about where he wants to point his ship in future years. His government's decision not to raise Manitoba's minimum wage for the first time since 1999 signals a sea change for the province.

The PCs are positioning the province to sail into competitive waters. During the election campaign, Pallister made comments suggesting he clearly believes putting more money in pockets through tax breaks looks better to business than rising wages.

Pallister's long-term plan is to allow Manitoba to swim in the same waters as resource-rich Saskatchewan and Alberta.

But for now, the Tories are staying close to shore before they chart a course between two major obstacles: Centrist and left-leaning voters who've been skeptical of conservatives since the Mike Harris Tories made radical cuts in 1990s Ontario; and an impatient PC base that's waited 17 years for smaller government and lower taxes in Manitoba.

On April 19, most of the centrists and many of the lefties opted to give Pallister a chance. That's why it's hard to discern many differences between the first Pallister budget and the final Selinger spending plan.

Pallister's direction should be more apparent when his government tables his second budget.