Priorities: Urgent planning required to take us through the post-COVID period

Dorothy Dobbie
Issues in the news

What’s your number one priority for the coming year? Is it interfering with the relationship between Russian and the Ukraine (especially since President Volodymyr Zelensky says he doesn’t feel any particular threat) or is it something closer to home?

I am betting that your worries are health care and the economy. How are we going to catch up the backlog of surgeries and other urgent care needs that have been created by the lockdowns? And how is inflation going to affect us now and into the future. Is my grandchild going to be able to afford that bloated mortgage I just co-signed under a really low interest rate or are rates going to jump and put both of us in jeopardy? How am I going to afford to use my car, which in Winnipeg, despite all the bike lobbies and transit plans out there, is a very big necessity especially for older people. Gas prices are up on the world market and they are compounded by carbon taxes which continue to rise. Grocery bills are astronomical. Heating and water bills are escalating.

The fact that the Feds are pushing $10-a-day childcare programs on provinces has no relevance to huge numbers of seniors, many of whom must live on their meagre CPP and OAS monthly stipend which is only a portion of what most need to get by. More and more seniors are working till they die. All those who spent their lives as freelancers or in minimum wage jobs can be in very serious financial straits at this time in life. Even those who owned smaller, marginal businesses can be facing hardship. Small business owners tend to think of their employees as family and may have finished out their last few years of work by not taking any salaries themselves.

So, chances are the much touted “threat” from Russia, now a mouse that tries to roar, is a nice attempt to take our minds off the waning pandemic and the ugly post-pandemic realities we will have to face, and we better be thinking hard right now about what will happen next and how to fix it.

The picture of health . . . or un-health

Let’s start with healthcare. Our premier and her health minister had a sensible answer to part of the problem: try to outsource it wherever you can. They are still in talks with North Dakota private operators. That is a short-term fix but what about the longer term? Is this the time to admit that the so-called public sector health system is not only broken but it is a lie? The fact is, many private sector practitioners are at work delivering services not just directly to the public, but to the government itself.

The problem with this is that it simply layers expense upon expense. If we have real competition, where the private sector practitioner could operate openly and charge patients directly, there would be incentive to work better and harder, both for the private practitioners who would have to offer real value for money and for the public sector that would see its base erode if it didn’t step up to the plate.

The last time I wrote about his was for the WFP and I got hate male, but save your effort, I know all the objections, and I do not think they are valid:

1. Some say that this would create a two-tier system one for the rich and one for the poor. The truth? The two-tier system already exists as above and further because if you have the energy and the money, you can go offshore for treatment and get it immediately, not when it is already too late. Having the option available locally would make health care available to a wider base and help free up space in the public system where it is most badly needed.

2. We all pay for health care and so we should all be able to access it equally. We all pay for many social services that we don’t access. This is no different. And the system is anything but universal. Many people can’t access a dentist which is totally private unless you are part of a company group program, and you pay there, too. Others cannot afford their drugs in the first several months of illness because their eligibility for relief is predicated of previous years’ earnings.

3. All the “good” doctors would leave the public system and just leave the duds in the public system. I suspect what would really happen is that docs would access both. Right now, I know an orthopedic surgeon who says the healthcare “quota” system means that he is idle as much as 30 per cent of his time – but there are long lineups for knee and hip surgery that he is not allowed by the system to attend. What a waste. 

This won’t fix all the problems and certainly nothing will fix them overnight, but it would be an important step into the future.

It’s the economy, Stupid!

The second issue is the economy. While there are many economic forces beyond the control of Manitoba, or indeed, in some cases, Canada, there is no lack of money out there. The question is, how do we get some of it invested here? 

The Premier has appointed Cliff Cullen as minister of economic development, investment and trade. He did well in the department in the early part of this government’s mandate and his interests align with those of the premier on this important file.

Over the past 25 years, the province has lost much of its business mojo. Countless firms have silently folded their tents and taken their headquarters to Calgary or Toronto. When asked why, they will tell you that it is everything from the anti-business climate to high provincial taxes – and Howard Pawley’s payroll tax still serves as a major deterrent to investment.

It is not that we lack talent or have fewer entrepreneurs. Indeed, we have a great pool of both that is sadly spilling its benefits over to other jurisdictions. Take the guys who started Skip the Dishes… while they maintain a shadow presence here, they have mostly taken their millions to Calgary where some of them are bent on building a major digital banking system. If we don’t get them back soon – and they would love to come back – they will be gone with their opportunities forever.

This story can be retold in a hundred instances. Now is the time to deal with it.

1. We need to systematically go through the barriers that are preventing our finest to remain here. And we do not need high-priced “consultants” to do this, but rather we need smart thinking community people who understand the local dynamics, who have their feet on the ground and are up to their knees in practical considerations.

Some work has been done about the top opportunities, the co-called cluster. This urgently needs to be reexamined as it has completely ignored the minerals sector and the tech sector, both. It will be no surprise that the study was conducted by a consultant who probably lived somewhere else, if not physically, in an out of business atmosphere that amounted to the same thing. Ridiculous!

2. We need a rational approach to trade. Currently, nobody is in charge. A great deal of what used to be handled by the Department has been parceled out to local agencies, but there is no policy planning or direction or goal setting. If this model is to prevail, and I am not saying that it shouldn’t, it needs a little repair. Other governments and even major corporate investors, need to feel that our local regime has their back, so the government cannot simply abrogate its responsibility to what is popularly termed, “the Group of Seven”.

The seven include Economic Development Winnipeg, The Metro Winnipeg Region, Rural Manitoba Economic Development, Communities Economic Development Fund administering the Look North plan, the World trade Centre Winnipeg, North Forge over innovation and Travel Manitoba overseeing tourism.

This can continue, but several things need to happen. The minister must continue to dictate policy and manage the diplomatic side of the work. There must be a reasonable budget allocated to each of the seven, so that they aren’t living off grants that expire and don’t allow them to do effective long-term planning. They need to meet regularly to share information and ensure cross jurisdictional clashes don’t happen. 

3. We need a clear signal to the rest of the world that we are indeed open for business. This is the job of the premier who should be sent on a mission to Bay Street for starters. Her key economic ministers need to be with her, and they all need a crystal clear message to impart.

We don’t have a long window of opportunity here so this should be in the planning stages now.

Manitoba has everything it needs to become an important economic partner in our Confederation. We simply need to retrain our thinking toward success. I think we have the right premier to allow this to happen. I also think that our cabinet will need a corporate culture sea change to take advantage of what she offers: the opportunity to get it done and get it done right!

So, the bottom line is: Set the goal. Create the plan. Execute. This will require the cabinet to act like ministers, adopt a vision, make decisions, take responsibility and look for results. Listen to the concerns of constituents with an eye to helping them rather than dodging them because you previously felt powerless to help. 

You premier has given you that power. Act on it! I have a feeling she will be looking for results. And we know for damn sure, that the public will be.