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This article was published 17/11/2015 (553 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Pallister says he wants to assure Manitobans he won’t slash government spending if he becomes premier next spring.
In fact, he refuses to say, at this time, whether he would be able to balance the province’s books in his first term in office.
In a speech to the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce Tuesday, Pallister said he would take a gradual approach to getting Manitoba’s fiscal house in order.
He said rather than cutting government spending, he would slow down spending growth by a modest one per cent. While the NDP has increased spending by an average of five per cent per year, he said, he would limit increases to four per cent.
"We will reduce not the spending of government but the... out-of-control increases in the spending of government," he said.
Since becoming Tory leader three years ago, Pallister has made fiscal prudence and running balanced budgets a key goal. He’s continually berated the NDP government for failing to balance the books, something it has not done in seven years. However, he’s also promised he would maintain frontline services if elected.
Pallister said Tuesday balancing the province’s books remains his goal, but he could not commit to accomplishing it in his first term. He said it was impossible for him to set a timeline yet because there are too many financial unknowns, including the size of future federal transfers and the size of any fiscal situation he might inherit from the NDP.
He also acknowledged there is a degree of public nervousness about possible Conservative cuts to programs and jobs.
"I think there’s a lot of fear out there that is unnecessary," Pallister told reporters after his speech.
"When I have people calling my office saying, ‘I got a mailer that says you’re going to fire my mom,’ I don’t like that," he said referring to partisan political attack ads.
Pallister told a packed business luncheon at a downtown hotel that a government he leads would conduct a comprehensive "value-for-money audit" of all government departments to see how government could work smarter.
Yet, if business leaders were expecting to hear the Conservative leader take a more forceful approach to deficit reduction, they were likely disappointed.
"Obviously as a chamber we would support and hope for a more aggressive approach to cost-cutting, no question about it," chamber president Dave Angus said afterwards.
"We’ll continue to push for that because I think we are in huge difficulty fiscally," he said, adding if the province doesn’t address its financial situation it could shake business confidence.
Premier Greg Selinger called Pallister’s moderate spending-reduction pitch to the chamber "a smoother version of the same message."
Given Pallister has promised hundreds of millions in tax cuts during his first term in office, including a percentage-point reduction in the PST, cuts to services or infrastructure investments are almost certain if the Tories form government, Selinger said.
"I would say that we should be very careful for wolves in sheep’s clothing," the premier remarked.
The Selinger government had set a goal of balancing the government’s core budget by 2019, but its ability to achieve that target seemed less likely following the high spending signalled in the NDP’s throne speech Monday.
Also Tuesday, the Progressive Conservatives alleged the NDP had doubled the amount of money spent on political staff during the past year — including buyouts paid to staffers who worked for Selinger leadership rival Theresa Oswald — but offered little hard evidence to back up their claims.
They said the government had added several new political staffers while existing workers had received whopping salary increases, including a 62 per cent pay hike to the director of issues management.
NDP house leader Dave Chomiak called the accusations "reckless" and the Tory math "goofy." He said there was no increase in positions, some employees received modest increases, while other positions saw compensation levels drop. As for the 62 per cent pay hike, he said the woman’s compensation rose because she had been on maternity leave the previous year.