DURING the pandemic in Manitoba, are we really “all in this together?”
Everyone is saying it, but what does it actually mean? And what could it mean at a time when all that we know as “normal” has been turned upside down?
Many intelligent, passionate people have been critiquing government responses and suggesting ways forward. What’s unusual, yet encouraging, is that there appears to be broad consensus across the political spectrum about what not to do. It seems as though everyone — with the exception of Premier Brian Pallister — agrees that this is not a time for austerity.
The business sector is calling for a much-needed lifeline from our provincial government. Public-sector labour unions are working in earnest to keep their members working. Public-policy advocates are calling on the provincial government to increase supports for those who are most vulnerable. And we are all calling for much needed health-care supplies and an increase in testing.
All of this is necessary and possible.
But for reasons which, it seems, could only be explained as ideological, the premier is sticking to an austerity agenda that simply makes no sense. Even worse, the premier seems to be using the pandemic to drive a deep wedge between Manitobans, exploiting the despair of those who have lost work in the private sector by explicitly calling on public-sector workers to share in the pain.
The premier has made an extremely weak attempt to respond to pressure from prominent business leaders, through the recently announced Manitoba Gap Protection Program. But details are unclear, and the eligibility criteria will exclude many vulnerable small businesses. The premier has yet to back off on plans for public-sector reductions, and he continues to demand cuts that will devastate Manitoba’s universities.
All this is being done at a time when the public is too weak and preoccupied to resist. We are unable to physically demonstrate our outrage. This seems to have emboldened the premier to ratchet up his austerity plans.
Other governments have shown that we do not need to rob Peter to pay Paul to, as the premier describes it, support “our Manitoba family.” We can support small business and community services while also ensuring public-sector institutions remain strong and our front-line health-care workers have what they need.
We can quibble about the details, but most would agree the federal government has stepped up in a way that has pleasantly surprised those on both the left and the right. Outside of Manitoba, there isn’t a provincial government talking about austerity right now. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Conservative provincial leaders such as Doug Ford in Ontario, François Legault in Quebec, and even Jason Kenney in Alberta are pumping millions of dollars into unprecedented levels of support for public-sector programs, small businesses, non-profit organizations and important institutions, including universities.
Yet Pallister continues down a destructive and reckless path, stubbornly insistent on deficit reduction at all costs, despite the growing opposition that tells him he is wrong.
It is time for Manitobans to set aside ideological differences and unite in our calls on the premier of Manitoba to stop the cuts.
Just as the business community must support the labour community in its efforts to keep workers employed, labour must demand government supports for business while also calling on its members to spend locally. And we all must push the provincial government to do more to increase income supports and housing for the most vulnerable.
While we might disagree on many things, we seem to agree on one thing right now — the best way out of this ordeal is to invest. But at this critical time, we are led by a premier who is ideologically hell-bent on austerity and deficit reduction at all costs.
We’re not naïve enough to think we’ll continue to agree when this is all over, but this appears to be a moment when we do. So, let’s take advantage of this moment for the health of our province. If we are truly committed to being “all in this together,” then let’s all get in this together to avoid irreparable damage.
Those Manitobans who don’t have a strong voice are imploring more of those who do — more business leaders, labour leaders and leaders in the voluntary and education sectors — to set aside differences and join together to tell the premier he is wrong.
As for the rest of us, we may not be able to demonstrate our outrage on the steps of the Manitoba Legislative Building, but we, too, can act. Call your neighbours, friends, colleagues and relatives, and ask them to join you in insisting that Premier Pallister and his cabinet stop the cuts and invest our hard-earned tax dollars in the people of Manitoba.
Let’s show Premier Brian Pallister what it means to be “all in this together.”
Department of Urban and Inner-City Studies
The University of Winnipeg
with Talia Syrie