Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

NDP effort to save itself starts with throne speech

Push to explain PST hike, reverse flagging support could come too late

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It's too early to call it desperation.

However, when the lieutenant-governor reads a new speech from the throne today in the Manitoba legislature, there will be a palpable urgency in the messaging coming from the NDP government.

Since its controversial April budget, in which it raised the PST by one point to fund infrastructure, the NDP government has been hemorrhaging support. If current poll results hold firm until the next provincial election in two years' time, the NDP would almost certainly be returned to opposition.

The province will try to reverse its sagging fortunes today with a throne speech that attempts to reset the context for the PST hike debate.

This will be done by revealing specific details of some large strategic projects to be funded by the additional PST monies. Chief among those projects is a commitment to improve Highway 75 to ensure it is immune from spring flooding.

The province is also expected to introduce a "multi-year investment plan" the NDP hopes will help people see exactly what the increased tax burden is accomplishing.

"The narrative is going to be a lot more clear," Jobs and Economy Minister Theresa Oswald said in an interview. "It's not going to be mushy."

Mushy would be a fair way of describing the messaging to date. From the outset, then-finance minister Stan Struthers struggled to explain why, still faced with a half-billion-dollar deficit, he would raise taxes to spend on infrastructure rather than balance the books.

The trouble continued as Selinger set out on the road to announce projects that were being funded by the new tax revenues. Critics complained there was no focus for the new monies, and they were being squandered on low-priority projects.

The plan to raise taxes to improve infrastructure became political quicksand over the summer as the Opposition Progressive Conservatives trapped the NDP in the legislature, roasting them on a daily basis and preventing needed legislation from passing.

With the fall, however, Selinger has signalled he is at least willing to try to reset the debate around the PST hike. The key to this effort was the recent cabinet shuffle, in which Oswald and new Finance Minister Jennifer Howard took on the task of rebuilding the NDP's tattered reputation on fiscal matters.

Oswald, who moved from health, and Howard, formerly minister of family services and labour, certainly have their work cut out for them. Struthers, who always seemed to be an odd choice as finance minister, failed spectacularly to generate any confidence in the province's fiscal fortunes or to enunciate a salient argument in favour of a tax hike.

Despite the fact business, transportation and construction industry lobbies were prepared, under the right circumstances, to get behind a tax increase, Struthers could not galvanize that support.

For example, Struthers never once mentioned the potential job and GDP gains that could come as a result of the increased infrastructure spending. There was a stimulus angle to this measure but Struthers seemed unable to define it for the general public.

Oswald in particular has already signalled there is a new approach on the infrastructure file. Her portfolio, which is now chiefly responsible for the infrastructure program, is an obvious attempt to connect the higher sales tax with jobs and economic growth.

Last week, Oswald met with key industry sectors to get input on how best to invest the new infrastructure money. That is something Struthers simply did not do, either before the budget or afterwards, in the wake of outrage over the tax hike and the province's decision to bypass a referendum.

Oswald announced following that meeting her government was now committed to spending the new PST monies on "core" infrastructure. That messaging, along with the decision to highlight improvements to Highway 75 in the throne speech, is an important tell on how the NDP hopes to win back some of that support.

Many of the key lobbies and special interest groups that have opined on the tax increase have demanded to see longer-term, higher-value infrastructure projects become the focus of the new infrastructure monies. Ensuring commercial truck traffic is not forced to make costly, time-consuming detours around a submerged highway is certainly a step towards meeting those demands.

The challenge for Oswald and Howard is to inject some wow into the infrastructure announcements over the next two years in particular. Rather than a school here and a hospital addition there, they will have to unveil some big-ticket projects that finally show Manitobans the value of the tax increase.

However, it remains uncertain whether that, in and of itself, can save the NDP from the self-inflicted wounds it has suffered over the last six months.

It's not desperate times for the NDP just yet. But with today's throne speech, the current government begins what is in essence a 24-month reclamation project that will decide its ultimate political fate.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 12, 2013 A4

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