First published in the Winnipeg Free Press April 10, 2021
I tried to tell the people but they never heard a word I say
They say there's nothing out there but wheat fields anyway
Just a farmer's wife hanging laundry in her backyard
Out on the prairie where the winds blow long and hard
Neil Young, Prairie Winds
Which way are the political and economic winds blowing in Manitoba?
Having weathered the COVID storm for over a year now – and the economic devastation that closely followed – most Manitobans saw the clear need for the winds of change to elevate Budget 2021: stimulus spending and meaningful investments in critical infrastructure, aided by historically low interest rates, along with a rejection of austerity as a policy direction to guide the post-pandemic economic recovery.
While pandemic-related hardships have not been distributed evenly across the province, it's fair to say that everyone is sick of this situation. Manitobans want relief and some sense of certainty in these uncertain times.
Instead, the budget tabled by Finance Minister Scott Fielding on April 7 contains a mishmash of short-term fixes in health care, massive tax cuts, and precious little in the way of economic stimulus spending. Of more immediate concern – as the province braces for a variant-driven third wave of the COVID pandemic – is the total lack of action on issues important to the thousands of working people that keep Manitoba running every day. Cue the chorus calling for paid sick days.
It is remarkable how well anti-austerity attitudes were represented in the Manitoba government's own pre-budget consultation findings, given the often stage-managed nature of provincial public consultations, marked by carefully curated questions designed for conclusion shopping rather than real dialogue. Yet, that such a discrepancy is discernible even in a flawed process is evidence of an imbalance that cannot be reconciled in a budget ledger: a democratic deficit.
Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of respondents to the budget consultation survey distributed by Engage MB in January and February indicated that improving the health care system (95%), improving education and child care (85%), financial support for people and businesses affected by COVID (82%), increasing mental health and addictions support (81%), and investing in infrastructure (78%) were high or medium priorities.
Lowering taxes came in dead last among the pre-determined, six major budget priority areas set out at the beginning of the survey. In stark contrast to the categories above, a total of 52% of survey respondents felt that lowering taxes was a high to medium priority, marginally more than the 47% of respondents who regarded such a move as a low priority or not a priority at all.
Despite this decidedly cool reception to the notion of cutting revenue streams during a recession, Budget 2021 contains an entire chapter devoted to tax cuts.
The Engage MB survey also revealed an indifference, at best, to balanced budgets, one of the central policy goals of this government. Only 10% of respondents expressed a desire to balance the budget at all costs before 2027, a timeline that has since been revised to 2028-29. In total, 81% of respondents were either comfortable with the original 2027 timeline (37%) or with balancing the budget at a later stage (44%).
Manitobans’ apprehension about balanced budgets comes from their understanding that they are balanced on a democratic deficit, on the backs of working people and the poor.
What does this tell us about the political winds in this province? One could do worse than to ask public sector workers who have had their wages frozen by Bill 28, determined to be unconstitutional by Manitoba’s Court of Queen’s Bench. Or maybe ask the trades people who demonstrated at the Legislature, one day ahead of the budget, against changes to the apprenticeship system that will reduce the number of journeypersons on the job at a time when skilled trades are desperately needed for infrastructure projects.
Like Bob Dylan, they might respond that “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”
And yet the democratic deficit continues to expand through plans to eliminate locally elected school boards and the recent introduction of Bills with no text.
Budget 2021 didn't deliver the winds of change; rather, it only produced a lot of hot air.