Eichler touts COVID biz support but won't extend or expand yet

·4 min read

Businesses don’t want to rely on government funding or emergency support — they’d rather be open at full capacity to make their own money, Manitoba’s minister in charge of economic development and jobs told business leaders Tuesday.

“But when the time gets going and it’s really tough, government needs to step up and be there,” said Minister Ralph Eichler. “What we’re trying to do is keep our economy moving and, at the same time, our top priority has always been throughout the last year to keep Manitobans healthy and safe... it’s a balance, for sure.”

That balancing act between public-health and economic concerns was at the heart of a virtual event hosted by the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce Tuesday afternoon, where Eichler answered stakeholder questions about the Tory government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic so far.

Much of his prepared address to attendees was filled with zingers about programs like the Bridge Grant, how Manitoba “provided the most generous support in the country,” and that they’ve “been there for all workers and businesses in a way no other government has.”

However, asked whether the Tories are looking at expanding or extending support for businesses struggling due to capacity limits under current public-health orders, Eichler was hesitant to provide many details.

“We have $300 million that we’ve actually set aside (under the 2021-22 budget) for this to happen if we need it,” said Eichler. “What I’ve heard from Manitobans and on our calls on a regular basis is that businesses want to be able to get back to capacity, and make their own money and have employees back and do those things on their own.

“If we need to do another program, we certainly will. It may not be the same program we have before.”

Chuck Davidson, CEO and president for the Chambers of Commerce, commended Eichler for looking at the current phase of pandemic protocols through a “business lens.” Under rules that came into effect last week and will remain in place until May 26, most storefronts are allowed to remain open but with varying visitor or customer limits.

“Not all businesses are equal in terms of the impact that COVID has had on them. How important is it that we’re looking at sector-specific and really targeted programs that can really address the needs of what those business challenges are?” Davidson asked, as one of his many questions on behalf of Chamber members to the minister.

This question among others allowed Eichler to cite relief packages and a reduction of taxes for specific businesses like restaurants and diners. He also mentioned a new program for the hotels, lodging and tourism industries.

Eichler was also asked about the recent change to his cabinet portfolio, which changed his title from the minister of economic development and training to economic development and jobs. “Certainly, this gives me more time to rebuild our economy,” he said.

“The premier and I had this conversation when we were talking about economic recovery... (my portfolio) was so big, I just didn’t have the time to focus on that completely,” Eichler said, adding a “full deep review” of his department will be announced soon. “I think Manitobans need to know how we’re doing this.”

Obby Khan, a former Winnipeg Blue Bomber and local entrepreneur, was recently provided provincial support for his online initiative GoodLocal.ca that supports independent businesses. Khan asked Eichler whether the Tories will continue to fund “innovative ideas from the community” like that beyond the pandemic.

“There’s always ongoing supports,” said Eichler. “Is it to the level that they need to be? Probably not. But certainly, we’re always open to new suggestions.”

Looking back, Eichler said he’s “proud” of how the Pallister government has handled the economy. “Are we going to get it all right? No, we’re not... Can we do better? Yes, we can,” he said.

“Overall, I think that the plan that we have and the responses that I’ve had is that we’re all doing this together. I think we’ve done a great job.”

The Chambers will host another stakeholder event later this month with the two provincial ministers for health, Heather Stefanson and Audrey Gordon.

Temur Durrani, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press

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