The man who wants to be Manitoba's next premier starts his uphill campaign today, less than a week before the NDP delivers what some expect will be its worst bad-news budget since it took power in 1999.
But Brian Pallister said the focus shouldn't be so much on what Premier Greg Selinger has to do to erase his government's $1.1-billion deficit, but how the NDP dug itself such a huge hole in the first place.
"The NDP for the last number of years has been able to perpetuate the illusion that they are capable fiscal managers because of the massive increases in revenue and transfer support that they've received," Pallister said Tuesday. "Now the illusion is gone.
"I think Manitobans will be able to understand that you can't keep promising the world and spending beyond your ability without damaging the future."
Pallister is the first person officially out of the gate to be the new leader of Manitoba's Progressive Conservatives, a job left open by Hugh McFadyen following the PCs' disappointing performance in the Oct. 4, 2011 election. McFadyen will step down when a new leader is chosen. Pallister's leadership campaign kickoff is today at 9:30 a.m. at The Forks.
If there are other challengers out there, only city councillor Scott Fielding is making noise.
"I am seriously considering it, but have not made my final decision," Fielding said Tuesday. "Right now I am speaking to party members and Manitobans and taking a 'listening tour' of what should be the priorities for the grassroots of the party."
Pallister, meanwhile, has already recruited several Tory MLAs to support his leadership bid -- he wouldn't name them -- and built a campaign machine to take him to the Oct. 27 PC leadership convention, a convention that won't proceed if he is the only candidate by the July 28 deadline.
Pallister was a PC MLA under the government of former premier Gary Filmon and was MP for Portage-Lisgar from 2000 to 2008, first for the Canadian Alliance and then the Conservatives.
He said his next major campaign stop will be Tuesday at the Manitoba Legislative Building when the NDP hands down its new budget.
The Selinger government has already released some details of what will be in their spending plan, including higher parent fees for daycares and eliminating tax-incentive grants for the public school system, but some expect even more pain. The NDP has said the deficit is higher than forecast because of last year's widespread flooding.
Pallister said this could have been avoided if the NDP had taken advantage of record-low interest rates, record revenue and, until now, record transfer payments from Ottawa.
"It's not a revenue problem," he said. "It's a spending problem."
Pallister also slammed Selinger for the premier's recent comments that in the new federal budget, Ottawa is failing to increase health and education transfers to the province for a third consecutive year, making it "very challenging" for Manitoba to protect those basic services.
"It doesn't demonstrate accountability," Pallister said. "I'm seeing the premier and the finance minister (Stan Struthers) both try to shift blame and shift responsibility rather than accepting responsibility. That's not a sign of real leadership."
Three questions for Brian Pallister:
Why do you want to be leader of the Progressive Conservatives?
"I want a province where my family can find work and stay together. And yours." (Pallister is married with two daughters.)
Do you want to see more people enter the race?
"We'd like to see competition. I think it would generate perhaps some additional enthusiasm and involvement by party members and Manitobans in the process. However, I would also like to get on with the work. I'm not interested in little building projects. I think this is a very important building project. I want to see us do it well. I think Manitoba deserves to have a better government."
Should you win, what's your first job?
"You have to do a complete and thorough internal review of the party's operations. You have to be critically and viciously honest of how you run your organization. Every successful business does this at a minimum of every three years. That would include a real look at how we build our policies and how we do our fundraising. It will also include a thorough analysis of the present assets we have and liabilities that we have. In building for the future of the organization, that work has to get done first, because that is how we steer the thing properly. We will have the people in place to do that work very quickly."