Government 2.0: Crisis response, or a play toward a leaner post-pandemic Manitoba?

By | April 21, 2020

In the midst of the worst economic disruption since the Great Depression, the provincial government wants universities, Crown corporations and other agencies it funds to think about emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic as “more agile and relevant parts of government.”

That was the final request made by the province during a Treasury Board Secretariat presentation one week ago, when most of the public bodies the province calls “other reporting entities” — schools, universities, Crown corporations, agencies, boards and commissions — were also asked to prepare workforce-reduction scenarios of up to 30 per cent over the next four months.

Organizations as disparate as the University of Manitoba and Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries are supposed to present those budget-cut proposals to the province today.

They were also asked to stop all discretionary spending, take advantage of Trudeau government aid programs and issue layoff notices to all non-essential workers, such as employees at casinos, which closed at the end of March as a result of a provincial public health order.

Most of these Treasury Board Secretariat requests are consistent with every statement Premier Brian Pallister has made about the public sector since he stopped dismissing the COVID-19 pandemic as a short-lived economic storm that can be withstood merely by facing into it for a few hours, like a bison.

Pallister has repeatedly said his only spending priority right now is health care — and the concerns of every other sector of the government are secondary, even institutions that serve as economic drivers in both good times and bad.

“We’re in the middle of a pandemic. We need to find resources. We need to look for those resources. It’s our responsibility to look for those resources and I expect everyone to be part of helping find those resources,” Pallister said on Monday when he was asked about cuts to universities during a conference call with reporters.

The one request that stands out as unusual, however, is the one about becoming more agile and relevant after the pandemic.

“Join us in thinking about ‘Government 2.0,'” Treasury Board Secretariat officials asked of the Crowns, agencies and universities.

“How will all organizations emerge post-COVID-19 as more agile and relevant parts of government? The world will have changed forever — how will your own organization?”

Manitoba premier Brian Pallister heads to his office after an emergency COVID-19 session last week. The premier has characterized cost-cutting efforts as supporting the health-care response to the pandemic. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

The idea of reimagining government in the midst of a public health and economic crisis appears to be curious. Most government departments and agencies are struggling to adapt to a minimal-revenue pandemic economy the same way most ordinary Manitobans are struggling to roll out of bed in the morning and put on pants.

While crisis may very well be the mother of invention, the directive to become more “agile and relevant” suggests something other than innovation and adaptation.

The Pallister government appears to be paving the way for the creation of a leaner, if not actually meaner “Government 2.0” by the time Manitoba pokes its shaggy, unkempt head into the post-pandemic sunlight.

Finance Minister Scott Fielding, who is responsible for the Treasury Board Secretariat, said it would be wrong conclude his government is trying to radically reshape the province during a pandemic.

“I think you’re reading a bit too much into Government 2.0,” Fielding said Monday in an interview, describing the final page of the Treasury Board Secretariat presentation as “a throwaway line.”

Universities and Crown corporations were simply asked how they will operate when the pandemic eases, he insisted.

“Some people have suggested this could go on for two months. Some people suggested this could go on for upwards of two years. So I think as government, we need to be thinking about how we’re delivering some of the services and supports.”

Manitoba Finance Minister Scott Fielding, seen here on budget day, says the province is not trying to reduce the size of government. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

This innocuous appraisal does not sit well with Manitoba’s opposition leader. 

“To me this is Shock Doctrine stuff,” said NDP leader Wab Kinew, referring the 2007 Naomi Klein book about the use of disasters to justify radical changes to government policy.

The most famous example of that phenomenon took place during the months following 9/11, when U.S. President George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq after terrorists based in Afghanistan attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Kinew says Pallister is attempting a similar play by attempting to reduce the size and scale of government during a public-health crisis.

“This is the government trying to ram through an agenda while Manitobans are preoccupied with the pandemic,” Kinew said in an interview.

“Pallister always wanted to dramatically reduce the size of government and this is his opportunity to do it.”

Kinew said it makes more economic sense to invest in jobs during a recession, rather than scaling back work. He cited the proposed cuts to universities — institutions that serve as workforce incubators during a downturn — as proof this government is more interested in cutting close to the bone than building the bones of a resilient economy.

NDP Leader Wab Kinew says the PCs are using the pandemic as cover to reshape government. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

There may also be political gain in this play. Elements within the Progressive Conservative government may see universities as bastions of the political left, along with the public-sector unions that face reduced work weeks during the pandemic as well as some of the non-profit organizations whose funding may be reduced.

Fielding said his government is not using the pandemic as a pretext for punishing ideological opponents.

“We’re trying to make sure all the money that we need to properly address and protect Manitobans goes to the front line,” he said, referring to health care.

There is no question the pandemic has severely weakened Manitoba’s economy. There also is no question provincial revenues will be impacted terribly this fiscal year, although it remains to be seen whether the deficit will indeed skyrocket to $5 billion by the end of the year.

Inconcistencies raise questions

But there are reasons to question the intentions of this government, whose messaging has been inconsistent.

Last week, Pallister called the clawbacks to non-profit organizations business as usual, rather than specific to the pandemic. On Monday, the premier pulled a 180 and said those organizations won’t see their funding cut if they continue to operate during the pandemic.

Also on Monday, Manitoba Organization of Faculties president Scott Forbes said he was told by Economic Development and Training Minister Ralph Eichler that a 30-per-cent cut to universities would result in a new funding baseline for post-secondary education, going forward.

Pallister said that was a false assertion and insisted the cuts would not be permanent. 

Eichler then said no decisions have been made with regards to longer-term funding for post-secondary institutions.

“This work will help entities understand and identify ways in which they might contribute to broader COVID-19 efforts,” Eichler said in a statement.

Only one of these three people can be correct. Only two of them serve in cabinet.

Only one of them is the premier, who is piloting the good ship Manitoba through the COVID-19 tempest. Whether or not the province winds up sideways on the shoals of the post-pandemic economy may be his lasting legacy.

So may Government 2.0.

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