Steady as she goes.
It was more of the same from Premier Brian Pallister yesterday as the Progressive Conservative leader delivered his State of the Province address to a packed UCT Pavillion at the Keystone Centre.
In front of a pro-business crowd, Pallister said the government continues to take measured steps to shrink the deficit, while, at the same time, protecting front-line services and the most vulnerable in the province.
Speaking in broad strokes, Pallister took shots at the NDP’s record while trumpeting what he said is "tremendous optimism" in Brandon and Manitoba.
He saved one of his most pointed lines, however, for Manitoba’s public sector unions, which continue to be the government’s favourite whipping posts.
"For 17 years (unions) have been running the Government of Manitoba and the NDP. Now they’re just running the NDP."
Pallister explained how the NDP government signed last-minute deals with unions and long-term rental agreements in Winnipeg which will hamstring the current government for years to come. And he’s not wrong.
He said the days of putting partisan politics ahead of sound policy are over. That the taxpayer will finally have someone on their side when union representatives step into the negotiating room. For that, we applaud him, as for too long big unions in Manitoba have won when it came time for talks about contract renewal.
He also leaned on a familiar anecdote, which he used earlier in the week at a chamber event in Winnipeg.
Pallister compared the state of the province’s affairs to a Manitoba social. When the lights come on at the social and the mess is revealed, he said a dedicated crew of volunteers stay behind to clean up the hall — to leave it in better shape than they found it. That’s what his government, with the help of Manitobans, is doing now.
For some in Westman, however, Pallister’s measured approach didn’t go far enough; and it only highlights a growing divide between parts of rural Manitoba and its capital.
Yesterday, Pallister preached patience. He said past premiers — Duff Roblin, Sterling Lyon and Gary Filmon — have also been part of cleanup crews.
Filmon, the province’s last PC leader, became a dirty word for some in the province. But it may be time for some historical revisionism.
It’s worth noting, when Filmon was unceremoniously dumped from government — in part due to a vote-rigging scandal in northern Manitoba — that the province was touting a $1-billion surplus.
One of his biggest achievements was moving close to 700 government positions out of Winnipeg and into rural centres in Manitoba as part of a "decentralization" strategy. More than 235 of those jobs ended up in Western Manitoba with 101 of them coming to Brandon. A further 79 jobs were located in Parkland, including 34 in Dauphin, 20 in Russell and 17 in Roblin, according to a press release from 1990.
At the time, Filmon said, "This is a massive undertaking, which reflects our commitment to providing equal opportunity to all Manitobans, regardless where they live in this province."
He’s also seen as the father of hallway medicine in Manitoba, although the rhetoric that he eliminated 1,000 nursing positions —1,500 depending who you talk to — has been largely debunked. Reports show there was a drop from approximately 11,200 nurses in 1992 to 10,800 by 1998.
A lesser-known piece of trivia is that the PCs even contemplated going to a 50-50 split of rural and urban seats in the province, something that would have dramatically altered the political landscape of Manitoba.
The reason we bring these things up is that despite some of Filmon’s shortcomings he was always seen as a champion of rural Manitoba.
Shift forward to today, and in spite of "record investments" in health over the last two decades from the NDP, when money seemingly grew on trees, emergency rooms, while not officially shuttered, were commonly closed in Westman. If Winnipeggers were concerned about wait times, many Westman residents were worried about whether their ERs were open at all. Couple that with the loss of agricultural and conservation offices, and MTS and Manitoba Hydro service centres and the outlook, at times, was bleak.
Yesterday, following his speech, Pallister said he has no plans to decentralize government positions in the province. Instead, he’ll continue to work hard to get the public sector and deficit in order.
At times, it felt as though Pallister wanted to share more information about his plans for the province. Plans we’re sure Westman ratepayers can handle. Instead, he shifted back to one of his many colloquialisms about rural Manitoba, careful not to step on a hornet’s nest 200 kilometres away.