My perspective - A balance


By Kate Jackman-Atkinson

Neepawa Banner & Press

Small businesses drive the rural economy, but are we doing enough to support them? Last week, Manitoba Liberal leader Dougald Lamont said, “no” and announced his party’s buy local policy. Part of their election platform, it would be a combination of advertising and changes to make it easier for local businesses to sell to the Manitoba government. It’s a policy with merit.

The advertising component would involve a partnership with chambers of commerce to develop a marketing and advertising campaign to encourage pride in spending money with local providers of services, products, tourism, sports or entertainment. In supporting this initiative, Lamont pointed to research by the American Independent Business Alliance (AMIBA), which showed that effective shop local campaigns can increase sales by 7 per cent.

Perhaps the larger part would be an increased focus on making it so that Manitoba-based businesses are awarded more government contracts. He’s on to something, there have been a few high profile cases where large government contracts were awarded to out of province companies, at the expense of local businesses. For example, when the province released the request for proposals in order to issue recreational cannabis licenses, small, local businesses were shut out of the process. Then there was the contract to provide medication to 104 rural personal care homes, which was awarded to a company owned by Shopper’s Drug Mart. These medications had been provided by local pharmacies, an essential and vital business in many small towns.

I understand the benefits of going with a larger organization, you’re guaranteed standardization and it’s easier to administer. I also appreciate a government looking for ways to keep costs down. But let’s not forget that Manitoba-based companies pay Manitoba taxes, and while the government may be focused on the cost, there’s also an income side to awarding a contract. An effort should be made to support Manitoba businesses; contracts can be awarded by region, or standards can be set and enforced, both of which would give smaller businesses a chance to participate. In most cases, RFPs shouldn’t be structured so they exclude Manitoba businesses.

There are limits to what the provincial government can do because of our free trade agreements, which also give Manitoba companies the chance to expand their markets. While the western provinces have signed the New West Partnership, creating free trade for government contracts, the agreement does allow for exemptions. These include the procurement of health and social services; services provided by lawyers and notaries; purchases from philanthropic institutions, prison labour or persons with disabilities; purchases from a public body or non-profit organization; goods purchased for representational or promotional purposes; goods, services or construction required to respond to an unforeseeable situation of urgency and goods intended for resale to the public.

We want fairness, but tender requests should at least consider the impact on local businesses. Other New West partners have explicit policies that allow them to favour their businesses. For example, the Saskatchewan government has said that vehicles with Alberta licence plates are not allowed on job sites for Ministry of Highways and Infrastructure projects. These restrictions were in response to similar regulations in place in Alberta, with respect to vehicles bearing Saskatchewan plates.

There are other barriers that can make it hard for Manitoba companies to bid, let alone be awarded government contracts. Improving things like uncertain timelines and the delays in payment governments are known for could help encourage smaller companies to bid on jobs. All large companies were once small and I think the provincial government owes it to its citizens to remove as many roadblocks as possible. There is a way to balance both free trade and economic development.