The Manitoba government unveiled its throne speech, one month early, to get a new legislative session started in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic Wednesday,
“During this time of uncertainty, nothing matters more than protecting Manitobans,” Premier Brian Pallister said.
The pandemic changed the way the speech was delivered in the chambers with just a portion of MLAs present.
Eighteen government MLAs, nine NDP MLAs and one Liberal member occupied half the normal number of seats, ensuring they were two metres apart.
Read the throne speech below:
The throne speech laid out five “guaranteed commitments” that focused on health care, education and child care, jobs, taxes and the economy.
For the most part, it was a stay-the-course speech with few surprises — with one notable exception.
When asked if the government’s plan to cut the PST to six per cent was going to happen, Pallister said no.
In the midst of the pandemic, “I just don’t think its achievable,” he said.
Not unexpectedly, one of the key pillars focused on health care and improvements.
The Pallister government said funding and resources will be dedicated first and foremost to health-care needs among the COVID-19 pandemic.
While there were few specific details as to where the money is being spent, the Conservatives said they plan to exceed the $2 billion Health Care Funding Guarantee. It will include new investments in hospitals, long-term care, drugs, doctors and nurses.
Long testing lines and increased wait times for COVID-19 test results have been a growing concern over the past few weeks as cases continue to rise.
The province said it will be working to secure more testing sites and capacity.
It also said more funding will be made available for personal protective equipment for front-line health workers.
As previously announced, the government reiterated its commitment to reducing wait times further for cataract surgery and joint replacements, and providing additional renal dialysis services.
In a reaction to the throne speech, Manitoba Federation of Labour president Kevin Reback said Wednesday that more focus on COVID-19 testing was needed.
“People are waiting far too long to get a COVID-19 test, forcing them to wait in their car for hours and put their jobs on hold,” said Reback.
“Working families want to see tangible results that bring these wait times down as we continue to see rising cases of COVID-19 in our province. But making COVID-19 testing easier was barely mentioned in this speech.”
Since the start of the pandemic, remote learning and keeping children safe has been a hot-button topic as cases began to rise again just as kids were returning to class at the start of the new school year.
The province refused to offer parents the option for their children to do their schooling completely remotely, as was the case when schools closed in March.
On Wednesday, the province said it will work to establish a provincial blended learning strategy, consisting of remote and in-class learning options as the pandemic continues.
Manitobans have been waiting to get a glimpse of a highly anticipated education overhaul strategy and a report on our education system. The premier said that report would be made available to Manitobans in the “not too distant future.”
“There’s too much money spent at the top in our education system,” Pallister said. “We need those resources to move to the front line. That’s where they are useful to students and teachers.”
While the government didn’t provide any key details it did announce the ‘Better Education Strategy Today’ or ‘BEST.’
It said this will look at transforming Manitoba’s education system into a “modern, responsive, and ambitious educational system that is classroom-focused, student-centred, and parent-friendly.”
“This is critical because we are failing our kids when we’re ranked tenth out of ten in every major category of comparative analysis,” he said.
“We need to look at better ways of doing things.”
Pallister also said it is the most ambitious overhaul of the education system the province has seen and his government knows it will be costly.
To help, the province promised a guaranteed annual increase of more than $1.6 billion more in education funding over the next four years.
The government previously committed to building 20 new schools around the province, on which it said it still plans to follow through.
CUPE Manitoba said any reports on education reform that were written before the COVID-19 pandemic should be scrapped.
“The province’s ongoing health reforms led to worker fatigue and staff shortages before the pandemic started, and now those issues have become even worse,” said Abe Araya, CUPE president.
“The looming threat of education reform has already impacted morale among front-line workers and educators in the school system at a time when the focus should be entirely on supporting our kids.”
Child care struggles in Manitoba have been highlighted throughout the pandemic.
When parents were still working but schools were closed, many parents struggled to find support.
It’s an issue that continues to grow as the pandemic progresses and parents go back to work.
While the government released no tangible details, it said it will be looking at making child care more affordable and more accessible for parents.
It will be looking to develop what it calls “a modern child care system and funding model that will enable and support the child care sector to grow in line with demand from Manitoba families.”
In a joint response, three local child care organizations called the speech a “failure” for the sector.
“Premier Pallister’s government continues to fail Manitoba’s children, families, and economy by refusing to adequately invest in the early learning and childcare sector,” said the Child Care Coalition of Manitoba, Child Care is Essential, and the Manitoba Child Care Association in a statement.
“Inadequate funding meant the childcare sector was under severe strain before COVID hit; today, the sector is even more fragile. About one in seven programs that operated pre-COVID has not yet been able to reopen.”
Taxes and Income
The Pallister government will not be fulfilling one of its election pledges this year to roll the PST down to six per cent.
“I don’t think its achievable in the not too distant future,” Pallister said. “I don’t think it’s achievable to drop the PST.”
However, it is moving forward with other tax breaks for Manitobans which it said are needed more than ever due to the pandemic.
The phased elimination of the education property tax, paid by individual Manitobans, will begin next year instead of 2023.
The government is also looking to help out Manitobans a little more by lowering some rates.
The province said it will be instructing Manitoba Hydro to keep this year’s rate increase to below three per cent and will also ensure Manitoba Public Insurance continues to lower its rates.
Rate increases and decreases must be approved by the Public Utilities Board.
Wednesday’s throne speech said legislation is being re-introduced to streamline the process of the Public Utilities Board – which the government said will allow it to make decisions sooner and at less cost, benefitting ratepayers.
Pallister said his government will also be looking at allowing less expensive and more convenient private retailing of liquor in the province.
While the Pallister government recently announced the province was able to balance its budget this year, it also said that likely wouldn’t last because of increased spending on COVID-19.
Pallister said his government will now be looking towards a two-term, balanced budget plan to eliminate the COVID deficit.
It is also committing to release an independent economic review of Manitoba Hydro’s Bipole III project and the Keeyask dam.
The Bipole III transmission line was completed in the summer of 2018. The cost for the project was originally pegged in 2007 at $2.2 billion and continually adjusted. In Hydro’s 2017/2018 annual report, it estimated the project at more than $5 billion.
The Keeyask generating station project was originally estimated at $6.5 billion but in March of 2017 Hydro again revised that cost estimate to $8.7 billion.