It is now abundantly clear why the NDP government is choosing not to hold a referendum -- as the current law requires -- before raising the provincial sales tax from seven to eight per cent: The vast majority of Manitobans oppose it.
As a non-partisan advocacy group for small businesses, Canadian Federation of Independent Business's policy positions are set by our members through surveys in a one-member, one-vote system. Given our commitment to grassroots direction, we decided that if the provincial government does not respect taxpayers enough to ask their views in a referendum, then CFIB would.
We hired Angus Reid Public Opinion to do a poll of 500 Manitobans. The questions asked were the same as those we put to our small business members in a separate member survey that yielded another 457 responses.
The results are compelling: 72 per cent of Manitobans do not support an increase in the PST. Opposition from small business owners is even higher at 92 per cent. In other words, if the NDP government held a referendum, it almost certainly would lose it.
The data from Angus Reid also broke down the responses by region, urban, rural, gender, age, household income, education and even which party the respondent voted for in the last provincial election. On any indicator, a clear majority of Manitobans opposes an increase in the PST.
Keep in mind that the intro to the survey included the two caveats that the tax hike is supposed to be temporary (though I'm not holding my breath) as well as that the revenue is to be used for infrastructure spending and flood prevention (again, not holding my breath).
We know that we face infrastructure challenges, but Manitobans are not willing to let the Selinger government off the hook for how it spends existing tax dollars. And, with good reason. In fact, over the past 10 years, spending has grown twice as fast as the growth in our population and inflation. That rate of spending is simply not sustainable. It's why 81 per cent of Manitobans who participated in the public poll (98 per cent of small business owners) agree that the government should reduce spending before raising taxes. Not to mention that we pay some of the highest taxes in Canada.
The first place the provincial government should trim is the size and cost of the civil service. In 1999, the number of provincial civil servants was 11,107 and the last count was 15,300.
With pay, pension and benefits that often exceed those in the private sector this is an obvious area for serious spending control. According to CFIB's Wage Watch report, provincial public-sector workers earn on average 13 per cent more than similar occupations in Manitoba's private sector.
Even the provincial government recognizes that there is room to cut. It has committed to reduce the size of the civil service by 600 positions over three years through attrition, which is not filling all positions vacant due to retirements or resignations. While that may be a start, consider that Saskatchewan was able to reduce its government by the same amount in one year using attrition.
Last week, CFIB together with the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association hosted a no-PST-hike rally at the legislature. More than 500 Manitobans came out to express their outrage about both the 'what' and the 'how.' For me, and many others, it was our first public protest.
I recently learned that one of my relatives didn't come to the rally because our organization wants "civil servants to lose their jobs."
This is not the case. CFIB is not advocating for thousands of civil servants to get a pink slip or have existing benefits clawed back. We are, however, advocating for an approach to government spending that is sustainable, accountable and fair to taxpayers. Using attrition to reduce the size of government and moving new hires to more affordable pension options are reasonable steps the government can take to cut costs.
Families and entrepreneurs make tough choices every day to live within their means. It's time for the provincial government to do the same. It's time for the government to withdraw Bill 20. Instead of raising the PST, the government should reduce spending. The data is clear -- Manitobans would support them on both counts. How can our government ignore these compelling findings?
Janine Carmichael is the Manitoba director of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. Get involved at cfib.ca/nopsthike.