BRANDON -- Premier Greg Selinger acknowledged his government's decision to raise the provincial sales tax is unpopular, but he defended it as necessary to maintain key services and build the economy.
Speaking to party faithful at the start of the NDP's annual convention in Brandon Friday night, Selinger admitted his government handed down "a difficult budget" on April 16, which includes the announcement the PST would rise to eight per cent.
"We had to make some choices about how we move forward in this province. And yes we decided that it was necessary to raise one cent on the dollar for the provincial sales tax. And that was necessary because we can't cut the core services... of health care and education. We need to fund those services," the premier said to polite applause.
"When we make those decisions, we know that not everybody is going to be entirely happy and we understand that. But our job is to build the province for the future and to be accountable for results. And I can tell you that this budget places us on the pathway to a more prosperous Manitoba."
Selinger said European governments have employed austerity measures with disastrous results. He said austerity has led to a "triple-dip recession" in both Britain and France.
"Austerity by itself does not allow you to recover from the greatest recession that we've had since the 1930s," Selinger told the more than 400 registered delegates. "You have to have a program that trains young people, educates young people, builds schools and hospitals and roads and looks after communities that have been ravaged by floods. You have to have a program that expands the economy and expands opportunities for the future. And that's what we're doing here in Manitoba."
Asked afterwards if he was getting much flak from rank-and-file NDP members as a result of the decision to increase the sales tax, Selinger replied: "Not a lot, actually... People just want to know that we're going to make sure that those resources benefit all Manitobans. And they will."
New Democrats are holding their convention at a time when the party's fortunes are sinking in the polls.
Last month, a Probe Research poll conducted for the Winnipeg Free Press found NDP support had fallen in seat-rich Winnipeg by 13 percentage points from December.
Worse for the New Democrats, the poll was taken just days before the government announced the PST hike.
The poll revealed the Conservatives tied the NDP in popular support in Winnipeg and lead 42 per cent to 35 per cent across the province. It's the first time since the NDP swept to power in 1999 the Conservatives have tied the NDP in popular support in Winnipeg.
The April 16 budget appears to have energized the Progressive Conservatives, who have hammered the NDP over the PST increase, labelling the governing party the SpeNDP. The PCs have argued repeatedly the government has sufficient revenues without increasing the retail sales tax. The one-percentage-point increase will raise more than $275 million a year.
NDP delegates will debate more than 100 resolutions this weekend on topics from jobs and the economy to energy, the environment, health and education.
The convention wraps up Sunday.