By Mark Hudson
Previously published in the Winnipeg Free Press August 15, 2023
Manitobans, like much of the rest of the world, are increasingly concerned with the state of the planet—including our own little corner of it. Global concerns like biodiversity decline and climate change are intertwined with local concerns about the water, air, and soil upon which we all depend. We rely heavily on the public sector for environmental protection and resource stewardship. The Manitoba government, however, is falling short on results. Among the provinces, only Manitoba and Alberta increased their overall greenhouse gas emissions between 2005 and 2021.
The current global situation and our own subpar performance in Manitoba call for an investment in our public capacities to monitor and regulate environmental impacts, reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, support conservation measures, and to provide Manitobans with access to nature-based recreation and education through parks. Unfortunately, the austerity government in place since 2016 has failed to answer this call.
Where we can see the impact of austerity most clearly and starkly in the province’s investment in the people responsible for environmental protection and resource stewardship. While expenditure has risen modestly on a per capita basis between 2015 and 2021, staffing in the two departments has crashed since 2015. Almost one-third of staff have been cut in environment, conservation, and resource functions since 2015/16. In 2018/19 alone, staffing authorizations were cut by twenty percent. Manitobans who camp, hike, and paddle in Manitoba’s parks won’t be surprised by these numbers, as park staff have been slashed, and it occurred in the midst of large increases in park use—especially for campgrounds. Less visible, but perhaps even more alarming, drinking water safety has been increasingly compromised. In 2020 the provincial Auditor General reported that declining staffing levels amidst much higher case loads were creating serious deficiencies in monitoring, licensing, and compliance of drinking water systems. Similarly, environmental site inspections more than halved since 2016.
Meanwhile, sticking with the austerity playbook, the provincial government has been privatizing and outsourcing public-sector work. They contracted with a Dallas-based corporation for the provision of camping and hunting permits. They closed the publicly-run Manitoba-based Pinewood Nursery, and we now buy tree seedlings from Alberta and Saskatchewan. They contracted out our wildland fire aerial suppression services to a UK-based firm, along with the rest of the Manitoba Government Air Services. Decisions about allocating public money for environmental and conservation goals increasingly take place through non-unionized, arms’ length not-for-profits and foundations, rather than through a democratically accountable public service.
The remaining public workers responsible for environmental protection and stewardship, after years of staffing cuts and privatization, are feeling the effects. As part of a larger research project examining provincial government austerity, involving a review of provincial staffing and expenditure data as well as surveys completed by over 2000 public service workers, workers report low morale, deep frustration with how they have been incapacitated, and high levels of overwork and burnout. “More employees are going on stress leave, leaving fewer workers with increased workload, adversely affecting mental health of remaining,” stated one survey respondent. “Everyone is drowning and trying to grab for something to hold onto.” Vacancies are widespread, and turnover in some management positions is high.
The consequences of austerity, the survey reveals, are a toxic cocktail of worsened jobs, deteriorating public safety and service, declining environmental protection, and at best dubious savings. 62 percent of the respondents perceive that expenditure cuts and restraints have, in their areas, worsened public safety. In addition to the negative effects on pollution and drinking water monitoring discussed above, respondents cited serious safety issues arising from limited resources to respond to bear encounters or night-hunting incidents and inadequate or non-existent oversight of contracted work. 91 percent report worse working conditions and job satisfaction, likely also linked to the 90 percent who reported worsened worker recruitment and retention.
Meanwhile, 56 percent believe that the austerity measures, even in the immediate or short-term, were either costing their own unit more money, or transferring costs to other units. “Everything the PCs have done in the parks has increased costs now and in the future,” said one employee, citing new, exorbitant fees for GPS vehicle monitoring and garbage collection paid to private firms.
Somebody always pays the price of austerity. It is never a raw saving, but a shifting of costs. Workers bear a part. Manitobans—unevenly and in terms of worse public services—bear another portion. Manitoba’s lakes, rivers, woods, and wildlife are likely to take the rest.
Mark Hudson is Professor of Sociology at the University of Manitoba and chairs the steering committee of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives MB.