Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition November 5, 2016
It may have taken a bit longer than the NDP soothsayers would have predicted, but the Pallister Tories are putting a firm stamp on this province.
The premier and company have pulled few punches as of late in their assessment of various projects and high-level government strategies. The Progressive Conservatives also appear unwilling to budge on their stance with wages in the province, using the University of Manitoba as their litmus test for wage freeze possibilities. Although the Tories have said they are neither bargaining for U of M management nor faculty, the very fact they floated a proposed wage freeze caused faculty to hit the picket lines earlier this week.
Seeking to keep public sector wages flat during a review of government services, the Pallister government rather effectively drew the ire of both the union representing faculty, as well as the management of the University of Manitoba. Finance Minister Cameron Friesen noted that the government was in a position to ask for some stability as a result of the “serious fiscal challenges” the province is experiencing.
The premier took it one step further as he was rumoured to have floated the idea of a wage freeze on the end of all expiring public sector contracts in a further attempt to get a handle on spending in the province. Pallister’s actions, although not popular, are what he promised during the election and clearly represent a new direction for Manitoba. We may feel the pinch from the Tories, but they are effectively doing what the voters elected them to do — clean up after the fiscal mess left by the previous NDP administration.
Pallister is not alone in seeking a freeze on public sector wages, however. The former New Democratic government asked for a similar wage freeze in 2010, although the level of labour instability perhaps wasn’t where it is currently.
As Progressive Conservative members from throughout the province gather in the Wheat City this weekend, clearly the U of M strike will be top of mind for many of the dignitaries.
Although this weekend was meant to bolster goodwill among Tory membership, the underlying tone is the belief that Pallister was elected to make tough decisions about the state of affairs in this province and he has shown he is not the least bit shy in doing so. Human nature often shows that it’s hard for people to hear the truth, but thus far the premier has fared well in making those truthful, albeit difficult decisions for Manitobans.
There is a challenge on the horizon for the Tories, though.
As they begin to go down the road of freezes and value-for-money reviews, they run the risk of angering Manitobans by flirting with the privatization of services as a way to lower costs.
Although the premier has stated that his government was not elected to slash government-run entities, the very idea the Tories are entertaining the “return on investment” reviews shows that privatization is something they have, behind closed doors at least, considered.
One such service is health care. The biggest chunk of our provincial budget has the government bringing in the consulting firm KPMG to look for “efficiencies” in our health-care system. It is the first of what is likely to be many reports sought on the actions of the NDP.
The previous Progressive Conservative government under Gary Filmon was well known for its use of consultant groups to shape policy while having a scapegoat for potential issues. One needs look no further than the sale of MTS to find a connection to those value-for-money-style reviews.
Pallister has infuriated Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union president Michelle Gawronsky by hiring KPMG for the review.
On behalf of her organization, she publicly called the move “incredibly disrespectful” while demanding a meeting with the premier’s office.
For Pallister, this needs to be more than he and his government merely exorcising the sins of the past. The premier must make smart decisions on the finances and management of this province, while keeping an eye on becoming visionaries and innovators in this country.
Now is not the time for the politics of partisanship and rhetoric. Now is the time to put this province on the right track by making the tough decisions that Manitobans elected Pallister and his government to make.