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The Pallister government budget - my response

On Tuesday March 13, the day after the budget was delivered, I had a chance to speak in the Manitoba Legislature on the budget.  My comments, from Hansard, are below. You can also listen to my speech by clicking on this link - Jon Gerrard budget response   The amendment which I moved at the end of my speech describes some areas where the budget could be improved.

Hon. Jon Gerrard (River Heights): Mr. Speaker, the budget is, without question, the worst budget I have ever seen. The recently released report - Framework for Economic Alignment and Growth, done by Deloitte, a respected and influential firm, provides a perspective. This is not a report produced by or for the Pallister Conservatives when in opposition. It's not a report produced by or for the Pallister government in its first few months of office. It's not a report produced by or for the Pallister government in its first 22 months of office. It is a report delivered after the Pallister government has taken the reins and been in the driver's seat for two years.
      The report says, and I quote: "The Province is unable to articulate a forward-thinking vision for the Manitoba economy." I will repeat this. The report, produced by credible people, after talking with numerous stakeholders, says, the current government is unable to articulate a forward looking vision for the Manitoba economy. I will repeat. This is not a report done by a rinky-dink group or somebody with a different political view. The report, by a respected audit, consulting and financial firm, says the Pallister government has been, and I quote, "unable to articulate a forward looking vision for the Manitoba economy."
      And this is just the start. The report continues: "The situation is so bad that industry, academia, and peer governments are uncertain about how best to engage with the government of Manitoba, limiting the scope of true collaboration and policy innovation." Most opposition leaders are able to articulate a forward-looking vision for the provincial or federal government that they want to run when they form government. Most governments, in their first Throne Speech or in their first 100 days, are able to articulate a forward-looking vision for the provincial or federal economy they are responsible for. Almost every government, even one that stumbles around in its first year, has articulated by their second Throne Speech a forward-thinking vision for the economy that they're responsible for. I do not remember, ever before, a government which, several months past its third Throne Speech, still has not been able to articulate a forward-looking vision for the economy which they are responsible for.
      This government is unique. Halfway through their mandate, they still have not clearly articulated a direction for Manitoba's economy. I ask a basic question: Does it make sense for a government with a very large deficit to bring in what the Finance Minister calls the biggest tax break in the history of our province? I say no.
The Province should be focused on restoring good financial management along with improving services, including improving the lives of those who are less fortunate and having a clear vision on where the economy should be going. Instead, this is a government focused on having the biggest tax cuts in history.
      Let us next ask: How much faster could this government have balanced the budget if it had not led off with big tax cuts? The answer is the budget could've been brought into balance much faster if the government did not solely focus on giving out tax cuts which will primarily benefit those who are well off. In my view, the government should've focused on getting the books in order and improving services in the lives of Manitobans rather than on cutting taxes in this budget.
      Let us look at the government's new carbon tax. As Loren Remillard, the president and CEO of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce, has said, the government has created carbon confusion. Loren Remillard and the Winnipeg Chamber suggest an alternative and a better way for a government. Loren Remillard suggested that the government could've used the money from the carbon tax in four ways: transitional support to affected industries like trucking, investing in the clean‑tech sector to stimulate the growth of this sector, supporting those on low incomes, support for measures to mitigate the impacts of climate change. And I will add a fifth area where investment is needed: in research and innovation to develop new products and services and to help build and improve our industries in their future.
      The Pallister government has failed to address these five areas with the carbon tax monies. Indeed, the Pallister government has not even provided a clear list of how each dollar raised by the carbon tax will be spent. The proposal of Loren Remillard with the addition of research funding would at least have given some rational structure to the use of the money raised by the carbon tax. It would have given an indication of how the government would approach the economy of the future, supporting existing industries and building the industries for the future.
      I will continue on.
      What should the government have done if it was really ready to focus on balancing the budget? It should have looked at ways to improve services while saving dollars, like the Nuka health program at the Opaskwayak Cree Nation and many others. But, instead of focusing on success and building on success, the Pallister government is focused on cutting successful programs like the I.V. team at the Health Sciences Centre, the Misericordia Urgent Care Centre, the mature women's health centre, the outpatient physiotherapy programs and so much more.
      If it were serious in reducing the deficit, the government should focus on growing our economy and getting more jobs for Manitobans. This might include improving our research capacity to develop new products and services so we can grow the green economy in Manitoba and help existing firms. There are win‑win solutions, like, for example, reducing nitrous oxide emissions, which make up 15 per cent of our greenhouse gas. Additional research in this area could help farmers and our province. The government could have allocated funds for research related to the reduction of nitrous oxide emissions. Instead, the funds for research with Research Manitoba have been cut by 20 per cent -  cutting the very life‑sustaining and economy‑building effort we need. 
      In this budget, it's obvious this government would be in big trouble if the federal Liberal government had not increased transfers to Manitoba by $350 million. By comparison, in 2014‑2015, when the Harper government was in Ottawa, the transfers to Manitoba decreased by $29 million. Members of the Pallister government should think about this before they disparage the Liberal government in Ottawa.
      Health care makes up 43 per cent of the total budget. Notably, while the health‑care budget is up by $56 million from last year, Ottawa transferred $86 million more to Manitoba for health. This means that the Province of Manitoba has cut its provincial contribution to health by $30 million. In opposition, the Pallister conservatives, day after day, directed petition after petition, question after question about bringing Manitoba's health system into the present century by putting in a badly needed dedicated stroke unit. Every other province in Canada, including Prince Edward Island, has had one for years, and yet here we are, the Pallister government's third budget and still not sign of a dedicated stroke unit. Amazing how off track this government has got.
      We all see the need to improve health care, but starting by reducing and eliminating things that are working well is not the way to proceed.
      In public meetings, Dougald Lamont and I have heard many suggestions about how to improve health care and save dollars at the same time. In Grandview, we were told that the Parklands was spending $7.26 million in bringing in locums for nurses instead of building the in‑training recruitment and retention programs to have enough nurses living in the communities to fulfill the health needs of people. In the North, we heard of ways to reduce the need and the cost to transport people to Winnipeg, improving health and savings costs.
      A drug stabilization unit in Winnipeg and one also in Brandon for treating those with addiction to meth and follow‑up transition services could improve health and dramatically decrease the social costs of meth addiction. Increasing the numbers of publicly supported peer‑support workers and psychologists has been shown to improve mental and brain health and to save health‑care dollars. Better integration of nurse practitioners into our health‑care system can improve health and save health‑care dollars. Better support for families to have fewer children taken into care could improve our society and reduce many societal problems over time, as well as reducing government costs. But there isn't sufficient action here to have any confidence that the government can deliver.
      Indeed, the government is not listening and not using common sense. Remarkably, in many rural communities, the government is getting rid of the ability of local pharmacists to support people in the personal-care homes in its community.
      The government is also planning to get rid of the  Grandview ambulance centre, which is well integrated into the community health care and offers excellent service. This is a mistake.
      The government has also so organized affairs in Manitoba that we're losing medical labs in many doctors' offices, another mistake. And on and on and on.
      This budget is a problem. It's geared to take money from those who are less well off and to give more money to those who are rich, increasing inequality and poverty in our province. Hundreds of millions of dollars in new money from the federal government should have been invested in health care, social services and education. It's all going to tax cuts.        
      The basic personal exemption has been touted to  provide income tax relief for low-income Manitobans but doesn't do this effectively because it benefits high-income earners much more than anyone else. When combined with indexation of tax brackets, the savings to those who earn less than $30,000 a year are small, while the savings to those earning in higher brackets are much larger.
      Meanwhile, the cost of basic expenses, including electricity costs, the costs of gas for your car, the cost of heating your home, the cost of drugs and many other costs are going up. Those on low incomes have fewer options to avoid these costs. This budget will negatively impact those on low incomes while enabling those with high incomes to be comfortable. Budgeting should focus on the needs of all and particularly those on low incomes and those who are disadvantaged.
     The Pallister government's 'managedment' of Manitoba Hydro also means that hydro rate increases are essentially hidden tax. The complete lack of any mention of Manitoba Hydro in the budget speech shows that the Pallister government is ashamed rather than proud of its stewardship of Manitoba Hydro. Indeed, Pallister and his government are taking $380 million from Manitoba Hydro this year and every year to make the Province's books look better.    
     While the budget documents claim that slow growth is the new normal, the reality is that two years into their mandate the PCs have no plan. Governments by their actions can influence the economy of their jurisdiction. This includes Manitoba. Having a government accepting low growth shows this is a government without a vision to improve. The government's stated goal some years ago of aiming higher seems to have been replaced by a vision to aim lower.
      In addition, the Pallister government is substantially cutting funding and services for Manitoba's francophone community. And why is there no specific funding listed for the International Institute for Sustainable Development and the Experimental Lakes Area in this budget? Is this Harper No. 2 in cutting ELA and science?
      It is sad to learn of the Pallister government's disregard for human rights, cutting the budget of Manitoba Human Rights Commission by 12 per cent.
      Mr. Speaker, Liberals will not support this budget.
      I move, seconded by the MLA for Kewatinook,
THAT the amendment be amended by adding after clause (h) the following clauses:
      i) failing to articulate a forward-looking vision or have an adequate plan for job creation and growth for the Manitoba economy; and
       j) failing to bring in a budget which will decrease inequality in Manitoba by not increasing EIA payments and instead increasing costs for those on low incomes by imposing higher taxes, higher transit costs and higher electricity costs without any offsets to help those on low incomes; and
(k)  bringing in a carbon tax without providing transitional support for trucking or related industries nor a logical, clear and precise explanation of where the money raised will be spent, causing carbon confusion and no clear signals regarding the future of related jobs and opportunities in building a green economy; and
(l)   failing to show clear plans to mitigate the problems associated with climate change, including increased floods, droughts and forest fires; and
(m) failing to provide leadership in moving to the development and manufacturing in Manitoba of electric vehicles, including cars, buses, trucks and tractors; and
(n)  failing to address the win-win of reducing nitrous oxide from agricultural processes; and
(o)  failing to make progress on eco-certification for Lake Winnipegosis; and
(p)  failing to even mention Manitoba Hydro in the budget speech and neglecting to take measures to reduce the expected dramatic increase in hydro rates; and
(q)  failing to act to improve the health of Manitobans by taking such measures as restoring the exceptional Misericordia Urgent Care Centre, restoring lactation services and the I.V. team at the Health Sciences Centre, supporting the ability of doctors' offices to have medical laboratories, investing in emergency management measures and supporting rural emergency medical services and local health teams including rural pharmacists and assuring there are sufficient numbers of paramedics, particularly advanced care paramedics, in rural Manitoba; and
(r)  continuing to clawback tens of millions of dollars from Children's Special Allowances to the detriment of children and families in Manitoba; and
(s)  failing to develop a duty-to-consult framework for indigenous communities; and
(t)   failing to invest in the city of Winnipeg and other municipalities by cutting funding; and
(u)  failing to invest in CFS transformation by cutting funding to strategic initiatives and program support; and
(v)  failing to address the meth crisis in Manitoba by failing to put in place a drug stabilization unit and traditional–transitional support to help meth addicts to address their situation; and
(w) failing to provide clear funding for the International Institute for Sustainable Development; and
(x)  failing to invest in the areas of immigration, status of women or francophone affairs and French education by cutting support; and
(y)  failing to invest in the advancement of human rights by cutting funding to the Human Rights Commission; and
(z)  failing to invest carbon tax or federal funding in environmental measures, reduce emissions by cutting funding to the clear environment commission, water stewardship and environmental stewardship; and
(aa) failing to support post-secondary education institutions, forcing universities and colleges to cut services to students or programs; and
(bb)      reducing funding for research and innovation by reducing the budget for Research Manitoba; and
(cc) failing to prioritize east-side road construction and breaking promises with respect to the funding of infrastructure in Manitoba.

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