On the Election Trail

Commentary, Agriculture, Robert Sopuck

Beyond all of the hype and hoopla of the current election is a real question. What do the alternatives offered by the political parties mean when it comes to the actual decisions they would make in office? Make no mistake. Whether you are from the “less government is better” school of thought or a rabid socialist, a government’s decisions can profoundly affect your business, your farm, your local community.

What are the policy innovations contained in the party platforms and what are their specific implications for rural Manitoba?

As befits a cautious front runner, Gary Doer’s NDP is running a tight, disciplined campaign whose main goal seems to be the avoidance of mistakes. The worst fears of rural advocates have not materialized, in that Gary Doer mostly continued the policies of the previous Tory government. The NDP’s support for the hog industry and the expansion of Conservation Districts are two positive examples.

On the downside, the NDP’s ethanol initiative looks like a train wreck about to happen, as more facts emerge about the cost of government-mandated “gasohol.” For the communities that are clamouring for ethanol plants, it’s a case of “be careful what you ask for, you just might get it.” Modern, high-production ethanol plants require huge subsidies, but they generate few jobs. They also could turn a feed shortage into a crisis and thereby imperil our successful livestock industry. Some communities have, on one hand, denied hog barn permits but are, on the other, lobbying for an ethanol plant that absolutely requires a large adjacent feedlot. Maybe we’ll hear a big “oops” when this dilemma becomes apparent.

The Tories were first out of the block, with a major commitment to eliminate the education portion of property taxes on residences and farmland. The Liberals have followed suit. While welcomed by farmers and rural residents, this seemed to catch the NDP off guard. “Where would we find the money?” was their response, oblivious to the fact that perhaps we don’t need such high taxes in the first place. Frontier Centre calculations show that Manitoba would save about $372 million a year in health care if we just spent at the same per capita rate as Saskatchewan. This is only one of many examples of excess spending.

Stuart Murray’s Tories said they would revive the Department of Rural Development, killed by the NDP. While this may make good optics, a better approach would change the policy climate in Manitoba to one that rewards creativity and entrepreneurship. The fast-growing communities south of Winnipeg just keep charging ahead, with or without a Department of Rural Development.

Murray promises not to close a single rural hospital. That’s good politics, but he should be careful about placing himself in a policy straitjacket. Better health care for rural residents could be provided through the development of larger health facilities in Manitoba’s medium-sized towns.

With the NDP as the party of government-sponsored solutions and both the Tories and Liberals talking about tax reductions and the creation of a positive climate for development, Manitobans are being finally being presented with real policy alternatives. While rare in today’s image-based politics, this is a welcome development and we should thank all the parties for presenting a clear choice. It’s about time.

Can we afford tax cuts…?