The Embarrassment of Our Unearned Riches

Commentary, Transportation, Frontier Centre

I tuned in CJOB for a few minutes one morning last week.

Which is not to imply that I only listen to ‘OB for a few minutes at a time, but rather to underline that it was only a few minutes. Those few minutes, however, were just enough time to hear two callers voice the same lament about Manitoba –that it’s becoming embarrassing to be a have-not province.

The topic of discussion was the $56 million more a year the government has agreed to pay nurses to continue, for the most part, to work part time.

Neither caller seemed to begrudge the nurses the money, although one wondered what it might say about our collective drive. Both, however, wondered why, for all purported “advantages” the government insists we enjoy, we have to bribe nurses to stay here? But more, they agreed, how can a province that is so reliant on other Canadians’ money use it to play the big-spender? It’s unseemly.

That is a judgment rarely heard in the past. But today, with Manitoba standing in Saskatchewan’s economic shadow, it is one that is often voiced — once a minute in my brief survey.

And it’s not just that we now depend on the rest of Canada for one in every three dollars Finance Minister Greg Selinger spends, it’s that after nine years in office, the Doer government has yet to articulate a plan — even a desire — to reverse the trend.

The government is spending $3 billion more a year than it did when it arrived in office and collecting $3 billion of transfers, one third of its $9 billion spending. And what do we have to show for it? That our nurses are paid less than nurses elsewhere even though we spend more on health care per capita than our benefactors?

Meanwhile, the list of accomplishments not accomplished continues to grow. A report last week found that our transportation system is so bad that it’s driving business opportunities away. Another found that we need to spend $200 million on Assiniboine Park.

The folly of failing to produce a cohesive and determined plan to grow the economy so that Manitoba can stand proudly on its own feet again is becoming increasingly clear.

We’ve encouraged a hog industry that is now in trouble in part because the government wouldn’t go to bat for a slaughter plant in an NDP riding on the eve of an election and now implies producers are to blame for the lack of progress on water quality issues.

The transfer payment welfare drift has become so evident that others are starting to notice the lack of determination to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. The column above is an example from Alberta that others are noticing that we are becoming awfully comfortable in our seats on this free ride. Not that Alberta is likely to pull our plug; the money it sends our way is nothing compared to money it might lose if the rest of Canada decides to bite the tar sands hand that feeds it.

Ontario, however, is another matter. Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty is unrelenting in his criticism of a system that makes it possible for Manitoba to coast on transfer dollars when Ontario is struggling to remain the engine of the Canadian economy.

And if you think they are noticing now, just wait until the next budget is tabled in April showing that Manitoba not only can lavish money on nurses, it can do it while putting $700 million of transfers into its savings account.

You can imagine what Mr. McGuinty will say when he learns that not only has Manitoba squirreled away almost as many transfer dollars as are available nationwide to bail out industries hurt by the loonie, but that the amount is equal to the amount the Doer government plans to fritter away on a west side hydro line.

The budget will present Mr. Selinger with an opportunity to show that Manitoba finally intends to intends to use its have-not windfalls to reposition itself for success, but I wouldn’t bet on it.