Throne Speech: Warning Signs

The Conservative government’s second throne speech ended with a warm and fuzzy promise of a “bright glow of what we might achieve together.” We at Value Manitoba won’t be holding our breathbut we will be watching closely as we move toward budget 2017.

So how should we interpret the speech? Is that “bright glow” an autumn bonfire surrounded by happy Manitobans enjoying prosperity, equity, and justice … or is the government setting a match to our valued public services?

We know from the 2016 budget that the Pallister Tories haven’t had much to say about reducing poverty or addressing social justice issues that are much in need of improvement. The throne speech isn’t much better. Here are a few key areas to watch:

Employment and Income Assistance (EIA)

Apparently Pallister’s “listening to Manitobans” thing doesn’t apply to EIA reform. Conspicuously, not a single Conservative MLA attended Make Poverty History Manitoba’s pre-throne-speech event at the Legislature. Make Poverty History and other experts have shown that single adults and people with disabilities live with the deepest poverty. While child poverty continues to be a serious concern, low income families with children don’t live as far below the poverty line as these other Manitobans. But the Pallister government has decided to ignore the evidence and will focus EIA reforms on “improving the circumstances of children” … whatever that means.

Housing

The throne speech announces the government’s intention to tear up the current housing strategy and replace it with a new plan. Here’s a tip for the Minister before he scraps a perfectly good plan to focus on schemes to promote home ownership for low-income householdsManitoba already tried this in the early 2000s. It didn’t work. This report helps explain why.

As we warned about in a previous post, watch the provincial government for the privatization of social housing and an increase in subsidies to for-profit housing providers.

Child Care

Access to child care is a critical factor in reducing poverty, especially for women. The throne speech reiterates the Pallister government’s intention to expand family child care spaces in home-based facilities. That’s an odd choice if you look at the final report of the Manitoba Early Learning and Child Care Commission, which was based on extensive research and consultation. Family child care makes up a very small piece of the Commission’s overall plan, which highlights a number of concerns. It notes high turnover rates among family child care providers, varied levels of qualifications, and a tendency for this sector to refuse provincial subsidies in order to charge higher fees.

But hey, best of luck going down the road of finding enough space in home-based care for the more than 15,000 kids who are currently on the waitlist.

Education

The throne speech repeats the Pallister mantra that we need to improve education outcomes in Manitoba. Here’s another tip for the government: low education outcomes are directly related to poverty. Investing in policies and programs that prevent children and their families from falling into poverty, such as those outlined in this document a call to action endorsed by more than 100 organizationswill lead to improved education outcomes.

Indigenous and Northern communities

Indigenous and Northern communities are given the mandatory nod in the throne speech, including a commitment to improving child welfare (about 90% of children in care are Indigenous).  We will be looking to see some serious money in the 2017 budget allocated to Indigenous initiatives and northern development because if the Pallister government really wants to be the most improved province, these are areas that will have the greatest impact.

Privatization

Pallister’s penchant for privatization shines brightly throughout. He promises to “eliminate the current legislation governing private public partnerships”. This is a very strange move for a government obsessed with value for money, since that’s the whole point of those regulations. The current law demands that P3 projects be administered fairly, transparently, and prove that they deliver excellent value. Which sounds a whole lot like the entire Conservative platform. So why eliminate it? It looks suspiciously like letting private companies profit from public projects might be even more important to the Tories than ensuring Manitobans get the value for our money Pallister keeps promising.

And it’s not surprising that the Pallister government uses the speech to talk up social impact bonds. No one has proved that this new form of public private partnership has beenor will beeffective. And it’s unlikely that they will accomplish the work that most needs to be done, for the most vulnerable populations who need complex assistance. That’s because private investors will want to be ensured a safe, healthy return on their investment, and this will mean supporting projects that favour those most likely to succeed, leaving the most vulnerable out in the cold.

 Public sector downsizing & governance reforms

Here we also find more non-surprises. Brian Pallister has been clear in his contempt for public service workers and we’ve already noted his penchant to privatize. The throne speech reiterates Pallister’s earlier promise to eliminate 112 civil servant managers, and again reminded us that he will get public sector costs under control. Although the full implications of the speech are are unclear, there are hints of more cuts to come with the “reform” of Crown Corporations’ governance in the name of “increased efficiency”.

We warned in our “Turning Back the Clock on Labour Relations” post that things were not looking good for unionized workers, and we were right. Pallister has promised new legislation to cap public-sector wages. Any move of this sort preempts an employer’s ability to run a workplace as it sees fit. It is also in direct violation of employees’  right to collective bargaining.

Why is he attacking workers this way? See our post on Debts and Deficits.

Red tape and regulations

The proverbial bugbear of “red tape” makes its way into the throne speech a number of times. Make no mistakethis is code for “de-regulation”.  Regulations are important to ensure due diligence in public policies and programs. For example, parents looking for childcare want stringent processes in place so that they know that their children are receiving the best and safest possible early childhood education.

The one regulation that Premier Pallister remains very fond of will be front and centre in legislation this session: he will restore the law (which was struck down by the courts during the last government) requiring a referendum to increase taxes.  In the spirit of balance Value Manitoba humbly suggests that we like to see a similar policy imposed for approving tax cuts.

But as they say: the devil is in the details. And we won’t see those until the budget is released in 2017.