By Steve Lambert, The Canadian Press
WINNIPEG — Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister — a man not known for shying away from a scrap — is promising an even “bolder” approach in 2020 with his Progressive Conservative government now three months into its second term.
Pallister said Tuesday he plans to continue to control costs in the public sector despite protests from unions. He plans to cut taxes again despite criticism in some opposition corners. And he shows no sign of letting up in his vocal opposition to Quebec’s ban on religious apparel for some public-sector workers in that province.
“Manitobans asked for bold. They got bold (in the 2016 election). Then they elected us again so now they’re going to get bolder,” Pallister said in a year-end press conference.
Pallister has moved the government to within striking distance of a balanced budget for the first time in a decade, largely through a public-sector wage freeze announced in 2017 that is being challenged in court.
The province also forced a sharp reduction in the number of health care bargaining units, which Pallister said has resulted in fewer workers “wasting their time at a bargaining table, eating croissants.” Further wage controls are expected under a bill currently before the legislature that will set caps for senior executives in the public sector.
The spending restraint, along with higher federal transfer payments, allowed the government earlier this year to put $407 million into its rainy day fund.
That money, Pallister said, will help the province fight flooding in the spring that is widely expected following a very wet fall.
“That gives us a little bit more confidence we’ll be able to weather the storm, so to speak,” he said.
The money also gives him room to fulfil campaign promises to cut the sales tax on salon services, wills, home insurance and other items, the premier added.
Another battlefront for Pallister has been with Quebec Premier Francois Legault.
The Manitoba government took out advertisements in Quebec two weeks ago, inviting civil servants there to move to Manitoba if they feel threatened by their province’s ban on religious symbols in the workplace. Legault responded by saying Pallister should focus on improving French-language services in Manitoba.
Pallister said Tuesday the government has already had more than a dozen responses to its brief ad campaign and may continue the ad strategy.
“The responses in the short term — 15, 20 Quebecers in the last two weeks — showed an interest in visiting and potentially applying for work in the Manitoba public service,” Pallister said in French.
“It’s a minimal response but it’s an encouragement.”
Pallister touched briefly on a number of other issues during the press conference.
He said the government is not planning to sell all of its public housing units, despite some recent sales and a consultant’s report in 2017 that said public housing should be provided by non-profit groups and the private sector.
Pallister said no final decision has been made on the future of the Manitoba Development Centre, one of the last remaining large residential institutions in Canada for adults with severe intellectual disabilities. The number of residents and staff has shrunk over the years, and advocates have called for community housing over institutional care.
Pallister also flatly rejected rumours that he is eyeing either a run for federal office or retirement sometime before the next provincial election in 2023.
“Yeah, I like it here,” Pallister said to the row of reporters and cameras assembled in his office.
“I mean, right now it’s a little tense, but normally.”