A rally this evening at the Manitoba legislature could prove to be a telling gauge of public anger over the Selinger government's decision to raise the PST.
The Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF) and two business organizations have organized a demonstration for 6 p.m. they hope will draw several hundred Manitobans.
The groups are upset that the government is increasing the sales tax to eight per cent on July 1, and they're angry the NDP has introduced legislation to bypass a public referendum on the tax hike, as required under current law.
The tax hike has dominated debate during the spring sitting of the legislature. It was announced in the April 16 budget.
By at least one measure, Bill 20 is already one of the most contentious pieces of legislation the NDP has introduced in years.
As of Wednesday afternoon, 152 Manitobans had registered with the clerk of the legislative assembly to speak on the bill when it reaches committee stage. No bill has received that amount of interest since 2008, when 268 people addressed MLAs on a proposed law that would ban expansion of the hog industry in certain parts of Manitoba. That bill was passed.
So far, no date has been set for public comment on Bill 20, and it could take some time before the it reaches that stage. For the past two weeks, the Conservative Opposition has been using procedural motions to tie up house business in protest of the tax hike -- and to allow more time for the public to mobilize against it.
Earlier this week, the president of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce issued a call to members to register to speak in opposition to Bill 20.
The taxpayers federation, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) and the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association announced their intent to hold the rally Friday against the tax hike. They've issued press releases, emailed members and promoted the event on social media, but as of Wednesday, they were uncertain how large a crowd might turn out.
"We're hoping for at least several hundred, but you never know," said the CTF's Colin Craig, noting the public was given short notice and the weather (the forecast high is a chilly 2 C) is refusing to co-operate.
The CFIB's Janine Carmichael said her organization has emailed its 4,800 Manitoba members urging them to attend the protest. The group has also been working the phones to get people out.
"We're doing our best to let people know, and we're really hoping for a good turnout. Manitobans need an opportunity to speak out," she said.
The CFIB is concerned the tax hike will dampen sales and add to administrative and purchasing costs for members. It's also upset the government won't let Manitobans vote on the issue.
So far, more than 6,000 people have signed a CTF-organized online petition against the PST hike, Craig said.
The Conservatives said Wednesday some 3,200 Manitobans had forwarded their PST concerns to the government through their StandUpManitoba.com website.
In response to a Free Press request, the government said Premier Greg Selinger and Finance Minister Stan Struthers have so far received a total of 433 letters on the PST hike. The total does not count form letters of protest organized by any group, a spokesman said.
In comparison, Education Minister Nancy Allan has received 948 letters about her proposed anti-bullying law (Bill 18), he added. That bill was introduced before last Christmas.
Conservative Opposition Leader Brian Pallister will speak at today's rally, as will Liberal MLA Jon Gerrard.
On Wednesday, Pallister encouraged Manitobans to attend the event. "It's their taxes. They're working hard for their money and they're going to have less of it after this government puts in its new tax increases... ," he said outside the legislature.
Organizers also invited Selinger to address the rally, but his spokesman, Matt Williamson, said the premier had a prior commitment.