Editorial

Every year, the Manitoba government releases detailed departmental spending estimates following the unveiling of its budget. It’s a normal and important part of the budgeting process.

Every year, the Manitoba government releases detailed departmental spending estimates following the unveiling of its budget. It’s a normal and important part of the budgeting process.

The line-by-line projections provide the public with specific information about how government plans to spend taxpayers’ dollars, including the nuts and bolts of staffing, program costs and infrastructure projects. Unlike annual budget documents, which provide limited information, departmental estimates provide detailed breakdowns.

Province withholds detailed budget info in shrunken spending estimates

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Nahanni Fontaine, MLA for St. Johns, argued Monday the lack of information provided will hamper the Opposition’s ability to do its job. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press files)
Nahanni Fontaine, MLA for St. Johns, argued Monday the lack of information provided will hamper the Opposition’s ability to do its job. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Posted: 4:00 AM Apr. 27, 2021

BREAKING with decades of tradition, the Pallister government is withholding detailed budget information from the public — including estimated staffing and spending levels for critical areas of the province’s pandemic response.

Detailed Health Department spending estimates that filled a 145-page book last year have been reduced to a 32-page summary this year.

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The budget represents the broad strokes of spending; estimates are the nitty gritty.

For the first time in recent memory, most of that information is being withheld. Without explanation, the Pallister government has released abbreviated versions of departmental estimates, with most of the granular reporting removed.

For example, last year’s Health Department estimates document was chock-full of detailed spending plans that filled a 145-page book. This year, it was whittled down to a 32-page summary.

Without that level of detail, the public is prevented from knowing how much government plans to spend in areas such as fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, including appropriations for personal protective equipment, contact tracing, lab testing or critical care in hospitals.

Last year, the Families Department provided detailed spending plans in a 128-page document, which included information about child welfare and child-care spending. This year, government released a 33-page summary instead.

Similar formats were released for all departments.

The province has offered no valid reason for this unprecedented move. Finance Minister Scott Fielding, when questioned about it in the legislative assembly this week, said the change reflects "best practices" adopted by other provinces. When asked later by reporters who in Manitoba was calling for the changes, Mr. Fielding could cite none. The minister was unable to provide any rational justification for the move.

Absent a valid explanation, the only reasonable conclusion to draw is that government is deliberately keeping Manitobans in the dark about how it plans to spend their money. That is an unconscionable abrogation of government’s duty to provide the public with complete and accurate information about the taxes and other revenue it collects, and how it plans to allocate resources. It is an attack on democracy.

So offensive to the principles of openness and transparency are the proposed amendments that even Manitoba Ombudsman Jill Perron has flagged them (in a six–page letter to government) as having “significant” implications for access to public records.

The withholding of public information has become a disturbing trend with this government. Throughout the pandemic in particular, the province has consistently refused to release public records, such as statistics around contact tracing, infection-rate projections and regional test-positivity rates. The selective release of information is rooted in government’s attempts to control the public message (for its own political benefit) as opposed to following generally accepted disclosure principles.

It’s undoubtedly the same reason the Progressive Conservative government has introduced a bill to make it more difficult to access public records through the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. The proposed changes allow further delays to process applications for information and include vague exemptions that could be used as blanket refusals to release public records.

So offensive to the principles of openness and transparency are the proposed amendments that even Manitoba Ombudsman Jill Perron has flagged them (in a six-page letter to government) as having "significant" implications for access to public records.

Information is power. When government unjustifiably withholds public records, it weakens society’s ability to hold elected officials accountable. Refusing to disclose detailed spending estimates darkens another window the public has had into the operations of government.