Saskatchewan NDP leader Ryan Meili is disappointed with the provincial government’s budgetary response to the COVID-19 pandemic that was revealed during the spring session of the Saskatchewan legislative assembly.
The three-week session of the provincial legislature took place from June 15 to July 3. There were only 10 government members and five opposition members at any time in the assembly to ensure compliance with physical distancing measures due to the pandemic.
Meili spoke to media during an online video conference after the conclusion of the final day of deliberations, July 3. He said the opposition was pleased the legislative session took place, because Premier Scott Moe and the Saskatchewan Party government did not want it to happen.
“His big plan was to take us through the summer to an election with no scrutiny on his future plans, no plans to introduce a budget and it was only because of public pressure that he finally agreed to do that, and as we saw the budget, we could see why it was that he didn't want people to be looking at the budget itself,” Meili noted. “A very unambitious document and really missed the opportunity to make the important investments in areas like long-term care, child care and broader investments in people that will help grow our economy.”
He felt this budget was a cut-and-paste rehash of the pre-pandemic budget the government originally wanted to present in March.
“In March we said you can't introduce a budget that was based on a completely different reality that was basically being written last year, and present that as something that's valid for this year,” he said. “That's what they tried to do in March. They eventually backed away, realized that didn't make any sense, but somehow didn't actually digest the lesson and changed anything, because the budget that we got in June was essentially the same.”
The NDP wanted to see a budget that responds to the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic and that will provide a recovery plan for the province.
“The only thing that they did add in was a $200 million contingency fund and every time that we asked about areas that they failed to invest in – COVID-19, healthcare waiting lists that have grown, getting our kids back to school safely, long-term care, childcare – they pointed to the same contingency fund, basically re-spending those dollars over and over again,” he said. “So instead of coming up with a plan and a budget that actually met the needs of the day, they came up with a pre-election slush fund that they'll spend 10 times over for every different project and really that's not a credible way of governing. It's certainly not evidence of a government that has a real plan.”
Meili asked the government to return to the legislature in September to provide a complete budget with the standard four-year projections and an allocation of the $200 million contingency fund, but Premier Moe turned that request down.
“The budget was about as third as thick as it usually is, and the key missing piece there is the projection for revenue and expenditure, when this government plans to balance the budget, and what measures, what cuts, what Crown sell-offs, what other steps they'll take that they're not sharing with people now,” Meili said. “We gave them the opportunity to return in September and present those numbers and have the debate. We still think that's the right thing to do, but we also see there's no interest from the premier, who wants to continue to keep that information under wraps. So with that option no longer available, and we would still accept that and be ready to come back, but we'll continue to keep pushing for answers.”
The NDP is concerned about the measures the government will take in future years in an effort to balance the budget, and the implications it will have for Saskatchewan residents.
“What the government is really doing is hiding their true plans and what they will do if re-elected and the damage it will cause to Saskatchewan people through those cuts and sell-offs, if they get a chance to introduce another budget,” he said.
The NDP focused on a number of key issues during the legislative session. Opposition members asked for investments in healthcare and long-term care, and they wanted a fully funded plan for teachers and students to return to classrooms in a safe manner in the fall. Doyle Vermette, the NDP MLA for Cumberland, presented a bill to develop a provincial suicide prevention strategy, but it was voted down by the government in the legislature.
Meili said the NDP wants to see students return to school in the fall, but it did not feel the government’s plan for the re-opening of schools was sufficient.
“We want it to happen, but we also want it to happen safely,” he emphasized. “We know we've seen in other places in the world where the reintroduction of school has resulted in an increased transmission of cases. So that's something people want to be very, very careful about. What we've seen from the government is a sort of one size fits all plan that's based on the best-case scenario, on the numbers continuing as they are.”
He noted that other governments, for example in Alberta and Manitoba, have developed multiple scenarios for the return to schools.
“I think it's important to have that kind of realistic set of different options so that depending on how things are going we can have the right plan in place to keep kids safe and keep making sure that they're getting an education at the same time,” he said. “Whatever the strategy is, whether it's simply the increased cleaning and methods that the government has described thus far or something more serious, it's going to have added work and added cost involved and the thing that was also missing from this budget was any dedicated funding to that plan.”
The NDP welcomed the additional spending on infrastructure that was announced in the budget, but felt it is only a start to address the infrastructure deficit. The opposition is also concerned that the government is not doing enough to ensure contracts are awarded to Saskatchewan companies to benefit local workers.
Meili said the upcoming provincial election will certainly present some challenges to parties, because public health restrictions are still in place to reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection.
“For us it does mean being creative and innovative and changing how we door knock, changing how we reach out to members of the public and share a message using likely more digital ways of communicating,” he mentioned. “So there's going to be some difference in how we're reaching and of course our message has to be very clear. We have a plan to get us through this time and to build a recovery that puts people first. That's what Saskatchewan people need, that's what they were looking for, with this budget it wasn't there, and that's what we're going to be presenting.”