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Selinger failing to sell PST increase

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Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger

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Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger

It's a bit of a double-whammy for Premier Greg Selinger.

The most recent polling numbers from Probe Research show support for Selinger's NDP government lags well behind the Opposition Progressive Conservatives. So much so, were an election held today, the Tories would almost certainly win.

The second part of the whammy is Selinger's decision to increase the PST by one per cent to fund infrastructure is likely to be the seminal issue in the next provincial election, expected in either the fall of 2015 or the spring of 2016.

Poll respondents didn't like the hike and are skeptical of the NDP's claim that it is needed to catch up on infrastructure. Probe polled heavily on reaction to the tax hike. In short, two-thirds of Manitobans do not believe Selinger needed to raise the PST. Just over one-quarter believe it was necessary. Furthermore, more than half of all respondents believe the tax hike will likely influence their voting decision.

It is wrong to suggest Selinger is headed to defeat solely on his decision to raise taxes. The NDP has been in power for 13 years and is nearing that stage in the life cycle of any government in which voters want change for the sake of change. That alone makes re-election a challenging task.

If Selinger sees any hope in the current polling numbers, it is that there are solid recent examples of premiers who raised taxes and won elections.

The most recent example was B.C. Premier Christy Clark's Liberal government. In her spring budget, Clark raised personal and corporate income taxes and health care premiums. In May, Clark entered an election trailing the NDP Opposition by double digits.

Somehow, Clark proved pundits and pollsters wrong, winning another majority. Many observers are still trying to figure out how that happened, especially considering Clark lost her own seat in that election. Certainly, a heroically bad performance by the B.C. New Democrats seems to have played a big part in the outcome.

Despite having to go through the indignity of a July byelection, Clark has nearly doubled her approval rating and now ranks as the second-most-popular provincial leader in Angus Reid's quarterly survey on premierial performance.

Does Clark's stunning recovery provide some hope for Selinger? Not exactly. When you break down the specifics, this is a tale of two entirely different tax increases.

When Clark raised taxes, it was part of a larger effort to balance B.C.'s budget. Even the business community grudgingly accepted increased corporate income tax as long as it meant black ink.

In Manitoba, the NDP could have used the additional point of PST to cut its $500-million projected deficit nearly in half. Instead, Selinger decided to spend all that additional money.

No one likes it when taxes go up, but it appears B.C. voters were, on the whole, willing to forgive a tax measure framed as a deficit-fighting strategy. When the tax hike is part of a plan to increase total spending, voters appear to be more cynical. Even when the money is dedicated to infrastructure, something most of us believe is an area of legitimate and growing need.

The theory behind Selinger's decision was fairly simple: If you give taxpayers something very specific in exchange for additional taxes, you will eventually earn political support. The poll results show pretty clearly that Selinger has failed, at least in the first six months after the tax hike, to make his case.

It didn't help that the decision to raise the tax was made very late in the provincial budget cycle, eliminating all opportunity to make a nuanced argument for how the tax hike would mean better roads, bridges, schools and hospitals.

The NDP strategy all along has been to continue hammering away at individual infrastructure announcements, demonstrating news release by news release how the additional PST money is being used. It's a bid to shift attention from sales receipts to specific infrastructure projects.

Of course, there are at least two years left before Selinger has to face voters on this issue. That means two more budgets and many more opportunities to show Manitobans an infrastructure tax is worthy of support.

The NDP will no doubt take solace in the fact there are premiers, such as B.C.'s Clark, who raised taxes and won elections, even when the pollsters didn't think it was possible.

But it's hard, maybe even dangerous, to make direct comparisons. Perhaps B.C. is just less perturbed by tax increases in general. Perhaps Clark is simply a better communicator. Maybe Clark benefited from the fact British Columbians only had a few weeks to deliberate on the tax hikes before the mayhem of an election arrived and commanded attention.

For now, Manitobans are not buying what the premier is selling on the PST hike. That makes the likelihood of a Clarkian miracle all the more unlikely.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 7, 2013 A7

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