Pallister government's austerity during this crisis is dangerous, short-sighted

Although the government has been tight-lipped on details, it seems clear that Pallister is trying to push through his plan to cut and privatize public services under the guise of the pandemic.

Ottawa (24 April 2020) — As governments across the country roll out substantial funding packages and other supports in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister has doubled down on austerity measures.

"Pallister continues to be preoccupied with the bottom line, cutting public services and jobs at a time when Manitobans need them most," said Larry Brown, President of the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE). "This extremely short-sighted approach threatens to jeopardize the future health of Manitoba’s economy and its people."

Manitoba, an outlier in Canadian pandemic response

As many aspects of the Canadian economy and daily life have shut down due to COVID-19, governments of all levels have taken unprecedented action to mobilize resources, keep the economy running, and support the people and sectors most severely affected.

Even conservative governments notoriously focused on privatizing and cutting public services in the name of “balancing the budget,” have done a 180. They are injecting large sums of money into their economies to protect jobs, continue providing critical services, and to support the vulnerable populations disproportionately impacted by this crisis.

The federal government has unveiled an economic stimulus package, the scale of which hasn’t been seen in generations. At the provincial level, we’ve seen governments of all political stripes offer additional income supports or emergency funds to those who have lost their job, are sick, need to self-isolate, or are otherwise affected by the pandemic. Manitoba is the only province not to provide such supports.

We’ve also seen governments provide job-protected leave; offer rent assistance; enhance funding to hard-hit sectors like health care and frontline social services; top up the wages of chronically underpaid long-term care workers; and to provide additional funding to support vulnerable populations, including seniors, people living with disabilities, people experiencing homelessness, and victims of domestic violence.

While the measures may be imperfect, governments across the country have largely risen to the occasion. Most have shown a willingness to listen to experts and affected communities, and to make decisions accordingly. 

The Manitoba government has been woefully inactive in comparison. Pallister has failed to offer meaningful support to workers, families, and small businesses. He has ignored calls for income supports, especially for those living on income assistance, for paid sick time for all workers, rental assistance, and for consistent and adequate funding for child care, to name just a few. He had ignored the small business community, too, before unveiling limited financial relief this week. The Manitoba government did, finally, announce job-protected leave for reasons related to COVID-19, but was slow to do so and the leave is unpaid.

Adding insult to injury, Pallister’s proposed public sector spending cuts and layoffs move Manitoba in the wrong direction. Although the government has been tight-lipped on details, it seems clear that Pallister is trying to push through his plan to cut and privatize public services under the guise of the pandemic.

Attacking public services once again

Cutting public services is business as usual for this government. In his previous term, Pallister issued widespread layoffs across the civil service, restructured the health care system, cut social services, and walked back climate commitments.

But Manitobans should have been able to expect that their government would not turn its back on them during a global pandemic. Pallister’s austerity agenda was reprehensible prior to COVID-19, but continuing it during a crisis is out-right dangerous. 

"The Pallister government has once again shown disdain for the public sector and the people who provide these critical services during the pandemic — and every day," said Brown. "His latest move is a slap in the face to Manitobans who rely on these critical services, and to the workers who provide them — workers who have continued to do their jobs and keep the province running during a crisis. NUPGE stands in solidarity with our members and with all Manitobans as they weather this storm."

Austerity will only make matters worse 

Pallister’s doubling down on austerity is not just callous; it’s not good policy. Manitoba, like the rest of the country, is in a crisis. But cutting public services and jobs is the last thing Manitoba needs.

"We know mass layoffs and cuts are wrong,” said Michelle Gawronsky, President of the Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union (MGEU). “Wrong for Manitoba families who count on our public services, wrong for our members working on the front lines and behind the scenes to keep our province running, and wrong for our already struggling economy.”

Numerous local commentators and experts have exposed the idiocy behind the austerity approach.

In a recent article, policy experts from the CCPA Manitoba outline why the Pallister government response is entirely at odds with standard economic theory. That’s because employment and government spending contribute to the overall demand for goods and services, which translates to sales for businesses. In other words, spending stimulates the economy. CCPA's calculations reveal that the Manitoba government is employing questionable economics at best, or fearmongering at worst.

Even conservative voices have challenged Pallister’s thinking, noting that austerity measures could trigger further economic slump. Lessons from the 2008 financial crisis show increased spending, not cuts, is the way to get through this pandemic. 

That criticism has come from across the political spectrum speaks volumes about the failure of this government’s approach. The economic analyses raise concerns about how Manitoba will get through the present crisis, but also about how it will fare afterwards.

Pallister’s actions are short-sighted

Pallister’s ideologically driven agenda disregards the strain and struggle that Manitobans are currently experiencing. Indeed, his actions threaten to make things much worse in the long run. 

The proposed austerity measures will hurt Manitoba’s workers, service providers and users, and businesses today. But they will also hinder the province’s ability to recover from the pandemic and the associated economic crisis. The critical services that are on the chopping block, and the workers who keep them running, will be needed once the restrictions are lifted, and perhaps more than ever in the post-pandemic recovery. Not supporting them now is reckless. 

"Pallister’s preoccupation with the provincial deficit is myopic, and it threatens to destabilize Manitoba’s economy in the long term," Brown noted. "He is prepared to starve its public institutions at a time when he should be bolstering them and supporting the economy in ways that will make it more resilient after the crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced the value of our public and social services, fair wages and benefits for all workers, of protecting our society's most vulnerable, and tackling inequities.

"Now is the time to invest in Manitoba’s public and social services, workers, communities, and small businesses — not the time to abandon them."

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The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) is one of Canada's largest labour organizations with over 390,000 members. Our mission is to improve the lives of working families and to build a stronger Canada by ensuring our common wealth is used for the common good. — NUPGE