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Comments on the Pallister budget

Tuesday March 12 I spoke in the Legislature on the Pallister government's budget.  My comments are below.  

Hon. Jon Gerrard (River Heights): Madam Speaker, when this session began and the NDP and the Conservatives immediately launched into an afternoon discussion of the SNC-Lavalin situation, I was reminded of what I had heard, a few days before, from former President Barack Obama. He had been asked, when he was in Winnipeg, how was it that you were able to attend to so many different things at once? A President has an extraordinary range of things that he has to be looking after.
      And President Obama–former President Obama said: "I like to tell people this story."  It was a story about a fellow who came charging into his office. And the fellow said, "there's a major problem here. It looks like somebody messed up. It needs to be addressed right away."
      And President Obama looked at him, and he said, "you know, looks like somebody wasn't doing their job. What I can tell you, said the former President Obama, is that I'm doing my job. Are you the other guy?"
      And what was happening here in this Chamber is that we had NDP and Conservative MLAs trying to pretend that they were members of Parliament instead of focusing on the many, many critical issues that we have here in our province.
      Madam Speaker, in River Heights, I have held, over the last year, a number of forums on health and education: looking at the future of education and looking at the need to pay attention to children with learning disorders who are often struggling in our education system.
      We have also had forums on health care which deal with prevention. We had a forum which dealt with the general aspects of addressing poverty and homelessness as a very critical part of preventing sickness and helping people to stay well. And we had another forum which dealt with how to prevent specific conditions like HIV/AIDS, diabetes, brain and mental health issues and addictions.
      These areas are of critical importance to Manitoba. We want to keep Manitobans healthy. We also want to make sure that we're being wise in the way that we spend, and when we spend on prevention and we do it wisely and carefully, we can save a lot of future medical costs.
      There is little that is more expensive than looking after people with diabetes, and yet there has been very little really effective that's been done, in terms of preventing diabetes either under the former NDP government or under the current Conservative government.  We need to do much better in these areas.
      We had a report today, a report on what happened to Tina Fontaine. The report was called "A Place Where it Feels Like Home" - an emphasis on the need to make sure that children have a place that feels like home.
      I'm going to talk about the first two of the recommendations. The first one deals with ensuring that children are in school. This is, in fact, a big problem in Manitoba, which both the previous NDP government and the present Conservative govern­ment have failed to address.
      Let me illustrate from a recent visit to St. Theresa Point, where I was with my colleagues the MLA for Kewatinook and the MLA for St. Boniface. We visited a school in St. Theresa Point and had a chance to talk with the principal of the early years school, and she told us that, sadly, of the 1,300 attending all K-to-12 years, that only about 700 were achieving at least an 80 per cent attendance rate.
      I was shocked. We had a long discussion. One aspect which is critically important is having a school and a school environment and a curriculum–programs where children are excited and inspired to attend. Sadly, this aspect is being forgotten by the current government, which is just focused on cutting budgets.
      All of us, in all communities, need to work together to emphasize the importance of children being in school and then addressing issues like poverty and transportation, which can make it more difficult for some children in some families.
      We also need to have a vision for education in which children are excited and inspired to attend school. At a forum which I held recently in River Heights, we had Ben Carr, who's a principal of the Met School in Seven Oaks, talking about how they have centred the learning program on the children, and it is being very effective in keeping children in school and providing them an effective education and, indeed, a transition to the world beyond grade 12.
      The second recommendation deals with ensuring that there are supports in place to address brain, mental health and addictions issues. The previous NDP government, sadly, failed in this area and the present Conservative government has done very little in the last three years. The Conservative government has delayed–even putting out a request for a proposal came in late. The report, which resulted–the VIRGO report, was very slow and late to be delivered, and now, three years after the last election, we still don't have an implementation plan, as the Children's Advocate pointed out so clearly this morning.
      Sadly, the present Pallister government has been a disaster when it comes to implementing action to address brain, mental health and addictions issues. Health care takes up close to half of our budget, and yet over the three years of the Pallister government we have seen continued chaos in health care. I have almost daily people coming to me with problems. There have been extensive issues around personal care homes, like the Lions Prairie Manor in Portage la Prairie.
      There have been very long delays for people who may have cancer in getting access to tests to confirm their cancer and in getting treatment, as we saw with George Myer, who was told that he likely had cancer from an X-ray in September, and in January still had not had the confirmatory tests, and as a result of not having had the confirmatory tests, had not, at that point, started treatment. And when you have cancer you can't just delay for month after month. You need to be on top of the situation. You need to be moving quickly and it is important that we are doing better than we are seeing right now.
      We are seeing people who are being turned back or away from full emergency rooms and sent to other hospital emergency rooms often a considerable distance away, and sometimes having to go to more than one emergency room before they finally find a third emergency room where they can actually get attention.
      There are continuing delays in an effective plan to address the meth epidemic. We have Rapid Access clinics which are basically referral locations and these have resulted, in fact, because more people are being referred, in longer waits for treatment instead of helping people who have meth addictions effectively and quickly in a way that works.
      There are issues of access to quality care in northern Manitoba, as I saw recently when I was in Thompson and Norway House, St. Theresa Point, Wasagamack, Garden Hill and Berens River with the MLA for St. Boniface. 
      There is good health care to be found and there is good health care that we must have, but this government, too often, has been focused on making short-term cuts, which often, in fact, increase long-term costs.
      Instead of a combined clinical services plan and preventive services plan, we need two separate plans. They are separate projects but they will need separate people involved and when you try to do them both together the acute care clinical services tends to overwhelm the need for attention and, in fact, the prevention gets less attention.
      We have the latest changes to the regional health authorities, Shared Services now being established so that it can provide centralized micromanagement of facilities around the province.
      This really doesn't make sense. The government should understand and use better the principle of subsidiarity: that things are done better at a level where they can be done most effectively and a lot of health care can be done closest to where it's been delivered and managed closer to where it's been delivered. It doesn't make sense for Shared Health to manage hospitals, like the Health Sciences Centre.
      It doesn't make sense to have centralized micromanagement hiring and firing of local staff, for example, as is happening, as I hear, in some areas. We need to do much better. As I've already mentioned, in addressing issues of brain and mental health and addictions, we've long advocated to have much-improved access to psychological services and for much better peer support.
      In education, we have a government which is moving towards centralized control, and getting rid of local school boards. Often new ideas come in faster with local school boards. They can be very effective. Seven Oaks school board brought in the two Met schools. They are the first in Canada. And such innovations often happen much better with smaller school divisions.
      Further, there's no cost-saving from amalga­mations as we found earlier–about a decade or so ago, when the NDP amalgamated a lot of school divisions. Further, there's no vision for the future of education and no plan toward keeping children in school, a plan which is critically important. We also need more attention to early childhood education and better support for children in their early years.
      In sustainable development, we have the Wanipigow sand project put forward by Canadian Premium Sands. Construction is proceeding even before there's an environmental licence. When it comes to environment and the Wanipigow sand mine, the Minister of Sustainable Development (Ms. Squires), sadly, denied the reality of what's happening under her watch, that this construction is proceeding, even though there is no environmental licence.
      Just like with the NDP in 2013, where a whole mine was built before the environmental licence was issued, the Conservative government is not paying attention to what really should be happening, that you should have the environmental licence before you have construction proceeding.
      When it comes to climate change, I will quote Peter Denton, who said in the Free Press today: "Manitoba has done nothing substantive toward creating a greener world since the Progressive Conservatives formed government in 2016. If anything, we've gone backwards, despite myriad consultation with a broad spectrum of Manitobans."
      Mr. Denton goes on to say that the Premier (Mr.  Pallister) leads the Manitoba list of climate‑deniers. The Premier he says, continues, I quote: "By dithering for three years on the climate file, he has made our province less secure and less sustainable for all Manitobans, present and future."
      "We could have had a revenue stream that offered incentives for people to make lifestyle changes of their own, providing greener alternatives than the provincial budget could otherwise afford. Two years ago, that's what business, industry and environmental organizations agreed was the best idea, as long as low-income families were protected by rebates from the increased cost to basic services from a carbon tax."
      When it comes to Lake Winnipeg, although I was pleased to hear the recent announcement by the minister, what we really need is a move towards eco-certification. And we are not seeing that for Lake Winnipeg, Lake Manitoba or Lake Winnipegosis. The government needs to get to work. It promised eco-certification. It has not delivered, and it looks like it probably won't deliver in this mandate.
      We need to grow the economy, instead of shrinking it. We need to do better for Manitoba. Instead of designing a budget to shrink the economy, we need to be a better partner with Ottawa, to make sure that the dollars which are available from the federal government for infrastructure and in so many other areas are actually being used and helping us with progress.
      We need to invest in research, instead of dropping Research Manitoba as a line item in the current budget. When it comes to mining, the recent report, in fact, gave Manitoba a very low mark. If you look, for example, at this table 10 from the report–how often did the jurisdiction meet its own established timelines or milestones for permit approval decisions? Rarely met its own timelines: Manitoba, 44 per cent; Saskatchewan, zero per cent. We are way behind Saskatchewan when it comes to progressing quickly on mining exploration permits.
      Table 8, the amount of time respondents expected to spend getting the permits, licences or  notices of work to conduct exploration activities, 24 months or more: 30 per cent of Manitoba companies. Compare that to Saskatchewan; no Saskatchewan companies indicated that they would have to take longer than six months.
      So Saskatchewan is way ahead of us in Manitoba. Saskatchewan should not be way ahead. It is because this government and the government previously were not on top of what needs to be done in helping mining programs in our province.
      It is sad that the Conservative government is making changes which provide for lower taxes on those with high incomes, while increasing taxes on low and middle income Manitobans. My colleague, the MLA for Burrows, brought this out very clearly in some of the property tax changes in which the high-income Manitobans will have no impact to increase property taxes, while many low- and middle-income Manitobans are facing increases in their property taxes up to $500 a year. My understanding is, interestingly enough, that 90 per cent of the people in the area around Rossburn are seeing increases in their property taxes, a sad testament to the backwards approach by this current government.
      But we're also seeing, and interestingly enough, with the PST–just think about that. Those with high incomes, like the current Cabinet ministers, may not have to pay as much if they buy a Mercedes-Benz. They can probably save thousands of dollars, but look at that. Somebody who is poor who wants to buy a loaf of bread doesn't save a penny with this drop in the PST. It is a double standard in which those who are wealthy are benefited by this government and those who are poor are forgotten.
      It is also sad to see that some of the highest increases in spending in this government are for those who are staff in the Executive Council and the senior administration of ministers, and this is all happening while this government is cutting services all over the place for ordinary Manitobans.
      First Nations, Inuit and Metis people, it is sad to have a government which sees them as a problem rather than seeing indigenous people as partners and working together.
      In arts and culture, I was at the Centennial Concert Hall this morning. There is a desperate need  for some basic improvements there to improve the sound quality for the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. And people are very concerned about this, and yet there was nothing in this budget that would indicate any support for the Centennial Concert Hall. That is a sad testament to the lack of attention by this government on arts and culture.
      With those few comments, Madam Speaker, I will look forward to remarks by others.
      Thank you, merci, miigwech.

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