The Opposition turned up the heat on the ruling NDP Tuesday over the Selinger government's move to hike the provincial sales tax without first getting the permission of the people.
Smelling blood, the Progressive Conservatives hammered Premier Greg Selinger and Finance Minister Stan Struthers in question period over raising the PST by one percentage point to eight per cent effective July 1 and striking out a 1995 provision to first hold a referendum. The tax increase was announced last Tuesday in the province's new budget and is forecast to raise almost $300 million in its first full year.
The Tories also accused four NDP MLAs of running campaigns in the 2011 election with pledges they would not support an increase to the PST. One by one, Dave Gaudreau (St. Norbert), Sharon Blady (Kirkfield Park), Erin Selby (Southdale) and Ron Lemieux (Dawson Trail) were outed by the PCs of not keeping their promise to voters.
And Tory Leader Brian Pallister accused the NDP of flip-flopping on its past position of saying a referendum was a valuable tool to determine government policy, specifically a vote by farmers on the fate of the Canadian Wheat Board when the Harper government moved to end its monopoly two years ago.
"Then they said it was important, essential and democratic," Pallister said in the chamber. "Now they say the opposite. If it was important a year-and-a-half ago to have a referendum that affects less than two per cent of Manitobans, why would it not be important to have a referendum now that affects each and every Manitoba citizen?"
Selinger responded revenue from the tax hike will go into building flood protection in western Manitoba, repair crumbling roads, new schools and personal care homes.
"Those are the priorities Manitobans have identified," Selinger said. "Those are the priorities of this budget. I only hope the members opposite will support it." Selinger also said the budget injects $367 million into the province's economy at a time when Canada's economy is slowing.
The Tories scoffed at that suggestion and condemned the NDP's doom-and-gloom portrayal of the province's economy.
"Every time that a Manitoban is handed a receipt after making a purchase, they will remember the deceit of this government in the last election when they promised not to raise taxes," Steinbach Tory MLA Kelvin Goertzen said.
The PCs also said Struthers ignored the advice from Manitobans in his pre-budget consultations.
"How many people at these meetings requested an increase in the PST?" Tuxedo Tory MLA Heather Stefanson said. "It's not a trick question. Was it five people? Was it 10 people? Or was it in fact zero?"
Outside the house, Pallister said the Tories are still looking at a possible challenge to whether the NDP's attempt to raise tax taxes and avoid a referendum in one fell swoop is legal. Balanced-budget legislation enacted by the Filmon Conservatives in the mid-90s forbids the introduction of a bill, like the NDP's Bill 20, that would boost the sales tax without a referendum.
Outside the house, Premier Greg Selinger said he is not concerned about a possible legal challenge.
"We get advice on the best way to structure our laws," Selinger said. "We're following the advice of our legislature counsel in how we present bills to the house. They've assured us that the bills we've presented are completely appropriate."
The Tories also said as of late afternoon there had been 4,635 visitors to their anti-tax website, standupmanitoba.com, with 1,645 sending a response to the premier and MLAs.
Late Monday, 92 people had registered with the clerk's office to speak on Bill 20 when it gets to a legislative committee hearing. A date has not been set.