Political Diversity: Money Talks and its Language is Incumbency (Part 5 of 8): Current model limits political competition

Commentary, Taxation, Bryan Schwartz


The power of an incumbent in a supplicant society is massive—as long as the federal money keeps rolling in. Premier Gary Filmon lost power after presiding over a period of drastically cut federal transfers to the provinces. Premier Gary Doer succeeded politically not by charisma, but because of the plentiful federal money that poured in.
Doer consistently touted the reforms he introduced as premier, particularly banning political contributions by both unions and corporations. However, his overall approach to reform left incumbent governments with more power than ever compared with political competitors.
The law does not prevent the government from using public money to ingratiate itself with corporate and union interests.
Under Doer and his successor Selinger, the provincial government maintains an environment that is less and less competitive in relation to many other provinces and locations.1 Economic activity has been promoted by public works projects and “partnerships” in which the viability of a project is dependent on government dollars and favour—a subsidy culture. Big businesses in a supplicant society, including Manitoba’s, are not necessarily supporters of free enterprise. Many benefit handsomely from government patronage and repay it with support, or at least a muzzling of any criticism.
The support of union interests for the sitting government is ensured by increasing the scope of the provincial government sector and ensuring that unions receive satisfactory salary outcomes. As the Regional Health Authorities increasingly take over the running of facilities, more employ-ees bargain directly with the government. The provincial government has also signalled that it plans to eventually take over negotiations with teachers from the school divisions.2
The Manitoba Nurses Union (MNU) has shown how the game is played outside of any legal limits on political contributions. Prior to the 2007 provincial election, it ran a flashy TV advertising campaign promoting the progress that had been made recently in delivering healthcare. Less than a year after the campaign, the MNU threatened a strike, claiming that conditions had since deteriorated.3 They secured a collective agreement that made Manitoba nurses the fourth-highest paid in Canada.4 Presumably, the quality of healthcare was suddenly restored to pre-election levels.
The NDP government has been shameless about using public money for self-serving advertising. An opposition party cannot spend more than $250,000 in the year of an election.5 In the meantime, the NDP government continues to use public money to buy partisan political advertising under the guise of government departments and Crown corporations. In 1993, Doer complained to the Auditor-General about the use of public money to tout job-creation efforts by the Filmon government.6 Then in 2007, the amount spent on media to promote the pre-election provincial budget doubled over what it had been the previous year to over $156,000.7 For the first time, the government launched an image campaign and flashy website under the slogan “The Building Budget.”8
Overall, promotional efforts on behalf of the government exceed $10-million a year.9 The 2009 budget advertising campaign cost more than ever10 and boasted of the balancing of the budget, stability and the stimulation of the economy. There was no mention of the government suspending the requirement under the province’s balanced budget law, in respect of paying down the provincial debt, or that the province’s “stable” performance (fuelled by transfer payments) was at a much lower level than other provinces.
Other government institutions and Crown corporations have been busy advertising too. Manitoba Hydro spent $341,562 on a four-page insert in May 2009 that touted the large projects and investments being made in the province.11 The Winnipeg Regional Health Authority spends much money on public relations and has entered into a deal with the Winnipeg Free Press to run and produce a series of supplemental magazines.12
The solutions to these abuses of the power of the incumbency are known and simple. Ontario long ago passed a law to ban partisan advertising by the provincial government—all advertising must be approved by the Auditor-General.13 A private member’s bill was introduced in the Manitoba Legislature in May 2008 to secure the same arrangement here, but the government ignored it.14
The spending limits by opposition parties between and during elections are pathetic. They limit free expression and cannot be justified in the name of a level playing field. On the contrary, opposition parties need far more resources to be effective and to avoid having their message drowned out by public money being used for self-serving and partisan advertising. All MLAs need to be paid better in order to attract more talent and commitment, and opposition caucuses need far more money for research.
The problem of the government trying to buy support from big business and labour with public dollars can be addressed by curtailing selective subsidy programs and by restoring the role of private sector actors—both profit and non-profit—in delivering programs and services, rather than continuing a process of increased provincial micromanagement.
Don’t expect such reforms to take place any time soon. It might be a breach of the Charter right of free expression for the provincial government to severely limit spending by opposition parties while not being constrained in using public money to promote its own partisan messaging; but who has the resources or stamina to launch a court challenge? Political science teaches that incumbent governments will generally tend to shape the political playing field to favour their own interests. Manitoba’s current government has done so deftly, which has limited political competition and further entrenched the supplicant society model.

 1. Milagros Palacios, Alex Gainer, Charles Lammam and Niels Veldhuis, “Canadian Provincial Investment Climate Report: 2009,” Fraser Institute, December 2009 on p. 17—Manitoba is in 10th place for Personal Income Tax compared with all other provinces, 8th place for Corporate Capital Tax and 5th place for Corporate Income Tax. Also see p. 2: Manitoba ranks 6th overall as a preferable environment for attracting and nurturing investment compared with other provinces behind Ontario, Newfoundland, B.C., Saskatchewan and Alberta.
   2. Dan Lett, “Who’s running Manitoba schools?” Winnipeg Free Press, May 17, 2008, A7. Available online at http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/historic/32860054.html.
   3. Mary Agnes Welch and Bruce Owen, “Perspective: Squeaky Wheels,” Winnipeg Free Press, May 11, 2008. Available online at http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/historic/32849389.html; Catherine Mitchell, “Nurses win, government wins, patients…,” Winnipeg Free Press, March 14, 2008. Available online at http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/historic/32768254.html.
   4. Catherine Mitchell, “Nurses win, government wins, patients…,” Winnipeg Free Press, March 14, 2008. Available online at http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/historic/32768254.html.
 5. The Elections Finances Act, C.C.S.M. c. E32 at s. 54.1(1)(a). For a more detailed examination of these ideas, see Bryan Schwartz and Andrew Buck, “Bill 37: Battle Hymn of the Incumbent,” Underneath the Golden Boy (2009) Volume 6, p. 1.
   6. Alice Krueger and David Kuxhaus, “Politics, government ads don’t mix: Auditor,” Winnipeg Free Press, April 20, 1994.
   7. Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, (FIPPA) information request.
   8. See http://www.gov.mb.ca/finance/provincialbudgets.html#2006 for budgets up to and including 2006 and http://www.gov.mb.ca/finance/budget07/index.html for 2007 budget website.  
   9. Mrs. Myrna Driedger (MLA Charleswood), Hansard, 39th Legislative Assembly of Manitoba, Volume LXI No. 42B, (May 15, 2008) at 2188.
10. See chart in FIPPA information.
11. FIPPA information request.
12. Winnipeg Regional Health Authority Press Release, “A ‘Wave’ of Health and Wellness is Sweeping Winnipeg,” May 4, 2009. Available online at http://www.wrha.mb.ca/healthinfo/news/090504.php.
13. Government Advertising Act, 2004, S.O. 2004, c. 20.
 14. Bill 234, The Ending Government Spending on Partisan Advertising Act, 2nd Session, 39th Legislature. Available at
        http://web2.gov.mb.ca/bills/39-2/b234e.php. The Bill did not proceed to second reading.