Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Tories to fight increase in court

Top lawyer retained, Pallister announces

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MANITOBA Progressive Conservatives are ratcheting up the pressure on the Selinger government over its controversial decision to raise the PST.

On Tuesday, the Tories announced they would apply to the courts to declare Bill 20 invalid if and when it passes the legislature and receives royal assent.

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PC Leader Brian Pallister said his party has retained prominent Winnipeg lawyer Robert Tapper to mount the legal action.

The Conservatives claim the Selinger government is running afoul of the law by hiking the PST without holding a public referendum as required under the 1995 Taxpayer Protection Act. The NDP says it's acted within its rights to implement a tax hike before passing the enabling legislation.

Now, it looks as though the courts will decide who is correct.

"We're standing with Manitobans today against an injustice the provincial government is trying to (perpetrate) against all Manitobans and our future," Pallister said Tuesday, surrounded by caucus members and his legal counsel.

The Conservatives have held up passage of dozens of government bills in recent months, largely in protest of Bill 20, which the NDP introduced to raise the PST and remove the requirement for a public referendum.

The retail sales tax increase -- to eight per cent from seven per cent -- took effect on Canada Day.

Tapper told a news conference he cannot file legal action until Bill 20 is passed.

"You can't... challenge... legislation that doesn't exist. The legislation simply doesn't exist at this stage," he told reporters. "Until it exists and is formally law, when it gets royal assent, there's nothing that can be done, unfortunately."

Finance Minister Stan Struthers on Tuesday repeated his contention the government is on solid legal ground in raising the tax as it has.

"We've done our homework. We know that we're using the same process that has been used year after year (in raising or expanding the scope of certain taxes)," he said outside the legislative chamber.

But the Conservatives -- and their lawyer -- argue there is no precedent for what's being attempted through Bill 20.

The Taxpayer Protection Act, enacted by the Filmon government, "is a taxpayers' bill of rights," Tapper said.

"There is no money changing hands in that statute. It has nothing to do with the collection of tax. It has to do with the rights every Manitoban has to be protected against tax hikes in the absence of a referendum."

Before deciding on a tax hike, MLAs should have been allowed to "vote their conscience" on whether to repeal or amend the Taxpayer Protection Act, the Tories argue.

Bill 20 is now the subject of weeklong public hearings. The Tories are expected to continue to stall passage of the bill for as long as they can once it comes back before the house for third reading.

But since the NDP holds a sizable majority of seats -- and appears determined to pass Bill 20 -- its passage at some point is assured.

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 3, 2013 A3

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