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Legislative gridlock keeps media focused on PST hike

PCs working to rule on Broadway

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Depending on who you talk to these days at the Manitoba legislature, the Aug. 9 paycheques owed to provincial civil servants will either be delivered on time, or will disappear altogether, the latest casualty in what is fast becoming this province's political version of the Hundred Years War.

The legislature, in case you haven't heard, is gridlocked. The Opposition Progressive Conservatives are blocking every bill including the 2013-14 budget to protest the NDP's decision to raise the PST by one point to fund infrastructure, and to do it without holding a referendum as required by the balanced budget law.

It's work to rule, legislature-style.

To this point, the impact of the Tory legislative blockade has been largely symbolic. The general public pays precious little attention to the machinations of government at the best of times. Bills introducing anti-bullying measures to schools and forcing amalgamation of smaller municipalities are important, but they are new and it's hard to quantify the impact of not passing them.

In the last couple of weeks, however, the symbolic protest has come perilously close to having real-world impact. Further stalling of the budget bill could, theoretically, interrupt payroll in early August when the government loses its spending authority.

Unwilling at this point to invoke closure or prorogation, the NDP introduced an interim supply bill that would permit things such as payroll to go through without passage of the budget. It was, in many ways, a victory for the Tories, allowing them to continue blocking the NDP agenda, while not actually hurting anyone in the process.

However, the Tories stalled the interim supply bill for more than a week. Finally, last Thursday, it appeared the bill would pass. The lieutenant governor was on hand ready to sign it into law. However, the Opposition refused to provide its consent to sit beyond 5 p.m. Monday is now the next opportunity to pass the bill and avoid a spending-authority crisis.

Tory Leader Brian Pallister has repeatedly assured civil servants they will not go without a paycheque, while admonishing the NDP for suggesting it was his intention to run out the clock and exhaust the province's spending authority.

There is virtually no one who thinks the Tories want to bring about a fiscal crisis. That will not help them in their bid to earn the trust of Manitobans as we head toward the next election. Why then would Pallister push the timetable for interim supply so far, and cut things so close?

It's become patently obvious the Tories need the daily melodrama in the legislature to keep the issue of the PST on the top of the mind among voters. There is some evidence many Manitobans either didn't notice when the tax went up July 1, or have already forgotten about it. That is bad for the Tories, who hope to ride outrage over the tax hike to a win in the April 2015 election.

That probably also explains why the Tories are threatening a lawsuit against the government for violating the Balanced Budget Act. The Tories' legal argument is pretty thin -- legislatures are allowed to change legislation at any time -- but this is not really about forcing the courts to void legislation. It's about ensuring the issue continues to get some attention. That was why the party retained Winnipeg lawyer Robert Tapper to head up the legal action. Tapper is the Wayne Gretzky of hyperbole, renowned in the legal community for his tenacious disposition.

The NDP is aware of the underlying motivations in the Tory strategy, and it's why the government is so desperate to end the current session. It has always been theorized in Premier Greg Selinger's inner circle that with time, people would either grow to accept, or forget, the PST increase.

Most of us do not know how much PST we pay on the gross majority of our daily purchases. Combine our short-term memory with a relentless spate of infrastructure announcements -- all funded by the PST hike -- and in theory the NDP has a chance to not only survive the initial furor, but perhaps even win the next election.

To this point, the public backlash against the tax increase has been pretty modest. Rallies have been sparsely attended, and the much-vaunted petition by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation turned out to be much ado about nothing. That is not to say the tax hike hasn't done damage to the NDP -- it is running well behind the Tories in mid-term polls -- but outrage over the tax hike has been, in general, pretty muted.

As the stalemate now seems headed to August -- uncharted territory for a legislative session in this province -- only three things seem certain now.

First, expect the Tories to pass interim supply just in time to save the civil-service payroll. That will allow them to get back to the business of ensuring the legislature does no business.

Second, expect the Tories to keep the blockade going, perhaps until Labour Day. That ensures the news media will continue to watch and continue to write about the reasons behind it.

At this point in time, nearly two years away from an election, that is a big win for the Opposition, and a nagging concern for the NDP.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 27, 2013 A8

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