Whether or not one agrees with most (or even all) of his political inclinations, credit must be given to Premier Brian Pallister for the inarguable certainty that he’s a guy who will not be distracted from the goals he sets.
Some would characterize such a quality as steely determination. Others might be inclined to describe it as abject stubbornness.
Whichever turns out to be the favoured phrasing, it was fully on display Wednesday when his government unveiled a 2021 budget whose primary focus, in the midst of a prolonged and painfully expensive pandemic, is to serve up $200 million in tax cuts aimed at putting more money onto the mythical kitchen tables at which the premier routinely and rather quaintly seems to envision most Manitobans’ monthly book-balancing takes place.
Despite anticipating a $1.6-billion deficit this year as the costs of the ongoing COVID-19 assault continue to accumulate, Mr. Pallister has seized on this as an opportune moment to not only deliver on, but in fact rapidly accelerate, a 2019 campaign pledge to eliminate the education portion of property taxes. The election promise was to phase out the levy over 10 years; the premier appears to have more recently been gripped by a notion to accomplish the feat more quickly, starting with a 50 per cent reduction over the next two years.
Surely, in the considerable and necessarily contentious deliberations leading up to the presentation of a provincial budget, there must have been some among Mr. Pallister’s advisers who expressed the view that — to borrow a phrase from the province’s frequent pandemic briefings — "now is not the time" for cutting taxes in this manner. Surely they must have argued there are more urgent priorities toward which $200 million in provincial revenue could be redirected during the current crisis.
Mr. Pallister, however, who is thought to be in political-legacy mode as he ponders what many speculate is an imminent departure from political life, seems to have determined that now is absolutely the time for a flashy, folksy fiscal gesture that’s in keeping with his hardscrabble-upbringing narrative and bootstraps/kitchen-furniture mythology.
Whether it burnishes Mr. Pallister’s image beyond — or, for that matter, within — his party’s support base remains very much an open question. But given the manner in which his popularity as leader has ebbed in recent polling, presumably in relation to the province’s uneven pandemic response, one might be inclined to assign the 2021 budget’s tax-cut emphasis to the "desperate times/desperate measures" school of policy-preparation and political-image-rehabilitation thought.
The likelihood that an education-tax rebate of a few hundred dollars delivered to owners of residential and farm property — a category that excludes many of those hardest hit by the pandemic’s impact but includes much of the PC Party’s base — will be enough to right Mr. Pallister’s faltering ship seems remote.
Given that the budget offers little discernible new support for such high-priority areas as health care and education, while serving up modest but splashy salves such as the elimination of provincial sales tax on haircuts and spa services and a minor reduction in vehicle-registration fees, this has the air of a document motivated by diversion rather than decisive action.
Mr. Pallister has once again shown himself to be a politician inclined to pursue a predetermined outcome come hell or high water. Meteorological mercies have dictated none of the latter for Manitobans this year, but they’ve suffered plenty of the former during the pandemic and this budget offers only the most meagre of relief.