Provincial funding announcements tripled in lead-up to voluntary pre-election blackout, CBC analysis finds
NDP-led government issued close to 65 funding announcements in weeks leading up to 2016 election
Funding announcements by the Brian Pallister government have spiked over the past weeks, a pattern indicative of a pre-election campaign rush to get good news out the door.
It is still unclear whether Manitoba's premier will call a September general election — although he has signalled voters will go to the polls before the legislated fixed date in October 2020 — but he's followed the pre-election pattern of increased spending announcements.
CBC News reviewed and categorized all 1,692 press releases issued by the Manitoba government since the Progressive Conservatives took power in 2016. While the average number of funding announcements hovered around eight per month over nearly three years, volumes have suddenly spiked to as high as 27 last month and 24 in the first 11 days of June.
Christopher Adams, a political scientist based at St. Paul's College at the University of Manitoba, said these sudden barrages of pre-election funding announcements can be as much about wrapping up loose ends as they are about political strategy.
"When it gets to the actual stump speeches and being in the husting and being in debate and putting out literature, you can say, 'We announced this' or 'We're committed to this,' so these announcements now allow them to make statements during the campaign about where the party is committed about certain things," he said.
Governments generally go through a strategic cycle, structuring their mandate in a way that ensures the majority of positive news, such as tax reductions or significant funding commitments, comes shortly before the next election, Adams said.
The Manitoba Election Financing Act says government departments or Crown agencies can't advertise information about their programs or activities for the 90 days before a fixed date election or once the writ has dropped in the case of a byelection or fixed date election. Pallister has said his government will voluntarily restrict government advertising, a self-imposed advertising blackout that started June 12.
In the two days before the beginning of the self-imposed advertising restriction, government communications staff made no fewer than 15 funding announcements on issues such as wetland protection, training for students and teachers about treaties, highway improvements and several rural initiatives.
Dwarfed by NDP blitz
The latest funding announcement figures pale in comparison to the hailstorm of funding announcements made by the last NDP government in the weeks before the writ dropped in January 2016.
"One had to wonder 'Can they actually pay for all these announcements?'" Adams said.
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In the 19 days leading up to the legally mandated advertising ban, the NDP government in 2016 issued 114 news releases, with about 65 of them announcing a funding commitment.
PCs promoting party, Liberal says
Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont, the St. Boniface MLA, says many of the government's last-minute announcements are empty promises.
"For more than a year, the PCs refused to sign a $400-million agreement for housing and a $400-million agreement for home care and mental health, all desperately needed. They refused to allocate more than $1.1-billion in infrastructure funding for Manitoba, then in the week between session ending and a blackout, say it's a done deal," Lamont said.
"Pallister ramped up spending to promote his party ahead of a phony blackout only he knew was going to happen."
The intent of the legislated pre-election advertising ban is to prevent the governing party from benefiting from public resources. Some previous governments have adopted a very broad interpretation of the act by declining to respond to simple fact-based media requests before an election.
The Pallister government calls its voluntarily, non-legally binding advertising blackout the "Restrictions on Government Advertising Policy."
Asked about the volume and timing of pre-election funding announcements, media liaisons for both the Premier's office and the Opposition NDP did not directly address the issue.
Manitoba NDP justice critic Nahanni Fontaine reiterated her party's position that the government is not following fixed date election laws.
"This is unfair to opposition parties, yes, but more importantly, it's disrespectful to the people of Manitoba who believe in free and fair elections. The NDP brought in legislation to establish fixed date election laws, we respected them, and we would continue to respect them as government."
Olivia Bilson, the spokesperson for the premier's office, sent a statement that touted the government's track record.
"On April 19, 2016, Manitobans overwhelmingly elected us to fix the finances, repair the services and rebuild the economy. We have remained steadfast in that commitment to bring greater stability, security and opportunity for people right across the province. In the last three years, our government has made significant progress on our mandate, and it's important to inform the public of these measures and initiatives."
The statement goes on to say that the voluntary advertising restriction policy it has adopted ensures taxpayer dollars will not be used to promote the political agenda of the governing party before the election.
With files from Leif Larsen