WINNIPEG – Manitoba’s new Conservative government outlined its top priorities for its first months in office, promising to cut government spending, change laws governing unionization and establish a task force to reduce health care wait times.
In the government’s first speech from the throne Monday, Premier Brian Pallister reiterated promises made during the recent election campaign which swept the Tories to office for the first time since 1999. The five-page speech was short by design, Pallister said.
While many questioned the government’s focus on unions and lack of attention paid to reconciliation with First Nations or the record number of kids in government care, Pallister said his government is focused on a few “key areas” of urgency.
“They’re important,” Pallister told reporters. “We are going to do our best to address some dangerous situations that we have noted … to undo some damage that has occurred.”
As promised, the government will conduct a “value-for-money audit” across the bureaucracy with an eye to reducing spending by $50 million. The province will immediately take steps to join the New West Partnership trade agreement with Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia and develop a literacy plan for students.
The throne speech also promised to reduce ambulance fees and establish a task force to “reduce the time that Manitobans spend waiting for specialized or emergent care.”
There was no mention of rolling back the provincial sales tax hike which precipitated the decline of the previous NDP government but the speech repeated the Tory promise to reinstate a referendum on major tax increases.
With a fiscal update coming on Wednesday and a budget May 31, Pallister said the focus of the new government is to reel in spending and eventually eliminate the deficit.
“You don’t turn a canoe fast. There is a cargo there that we have to remember is precious and that’s our front-line services,” he said. “These are course corrections. Correcting the course has to happen.”
Interim NDP Leader Flor Marcelino criticized the Tories for their silence on affordable daycare, reconciliation, missing and murdered indigenous women or supports for immigrants.
The Conservatives are exaggerating the poor state of the province’s books, she added. The NDP left the province with the second lowest unemployment rate in Canada, she said.
“This is a fairly common thing we’ve seen when new Conservative governments come in, they usually try to run up the deficit and blame it on the previous government,” said former NDP premier Greg Selinger.
“We’ll see if they do that again.”
The throne speech suggested the Tories will begin consultations with the federal government and provinces to develop a climate change plan which will include some form of carbon pricing and reduction of emissions. Pallister declined to go into detail, saying he wasn’t prepared to “brainstorm” about it today.
Green Party Leader James Beddome said most economists advocate for a carbon tax but he’s not optimistic the Conservative government will go that route.
“I’m going to hope they’re actually going to roll out a real strategy that involves carbon pricing,” he said.
The Tories are also taking aim at unions early on, requiring a secret ballot for workplace unionization and allowing non-unionized companies to bid on government tenders.
Michelle Gawronsky, president of the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union, said the Conservatives are setting an “interesting” tone focusing on limiting the ability to unionize and cutting government spending as top priorities.
“They cannot cut any more and still maintain services that Manitobans require,” she said. “I don’t know where they are seeing the waste.”