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Selinger's PST rhetoric comes back to bite

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BRANDON -- If the PST increase is necessary to fund important flood-protection infrastructure throughout the province, as Premier Greg Selinger claims, the proof won't be found in Brandon.

In the aftermath of the devastating 2011 Assiniboine River flood, Selinger committed $20 million for one-in-300-year flood protection for the Wheat City. Last week, when pressed by opposition leader Brian Pallister to justify the PST hike, the premier responded, "When we listened to Manitobans, they told us they want to be protected from flooding, which is why we spent a billion dollars in the Red River Valley and extended the flood protection around the city of Winnipeg to one-in-700-year protection.

"We're now offering the same protection to the people of Lake Manitoba, Lake St. Martin, Brandon and the Assiniboine Valley."

While it appeared that Selinger had just announced the PST increase would fund one-in-700-year flood protection for Brandon, reality set in a few hours later, when Brandon city council unveiled a flood-protection plan that won't even deliver one-in-300-year protection for the entire city.

Some vulnerable areas of the city will receive that level of protection, but the plan's summary states: "One notable aspect to this plan is that there is no diking planned for First Street North. The plan will allow for First Street North to be flooded at a flood with a return frequency of one-in-100 years. The decision to allow First St. North to flood was based on practical limitations and financial considerations."

The strategy to abandon First Street North and the downstream portion of the city to floodwater has shocked many Brandonites.

The street is a four-lane provincial highway that serves as a major traffic artery. It connects to large neighbourhoods, Assiniboine Community College, Veterans Way and the Trans-Canada Highway. It leads to the provincial jail, CFB Shilo, the RCMP detachment, the CP Rail yards, a large school, important recreation facilities and retail areas.

A flood of even moderate severity would almost certainly result in damages far exceeding the capital cost of providing permanent one-in-300-year flood protection for the highway and surrounding area.

Despite those facts, the Selinger government is unconcerned with the new plan. "The investment in Brandon will provide a one-in-300-year level of protection for vulnerable residential and commercial areas of the city," says spokeswoman Rachel Morgan. "The city determined protecting the first street transportation corridor and the recreation fields to the one-in-300-year level of protection was not a priority."

The suggestion the city of Brandon willingly adopted a plan that exposes a provincial highway and a large portion of the city to ongoing flooding -- or even has the power to unilaterally make such a decision -- elicited bemused laughter from city officials.

They say the province has been fully involved in the plan's formation, providing approvals throughout the process. They indicate the province has committed no funding beyond the $20 million allocated in 2011 and insist the new plan is the best that can be delivered for the current funding. More money would mean more protection.

If the PST increase was intended to provide enhanced flood protection for Brandon, how did the city end up with a lower level of flood protection than was promised before the PST increase?

"This government will overpromise and under deliver on flood protection," says Pallister. "Past performance is the best indicator of future performance and when it comes to flood protection, this government has been an underperformer for 14 years."

Liberal Leader Jon Gerrard wants the premier to keep his promise. He says that "Greg Selinger should ensure Brandon has one-in-700 flood protection, just as he said on July 2. Nothing less should be acceptable."

The Selinger government has fumbled a golden opportunity to change the PST narrative, and silence its critics, by proving the PST increase will pay for infrastructure that will protect Manitoba communities from future flooding.

By failing to deliver the enhanced flood protection for Brandon that it claims the PST increase will fund, or even the level of protection that was promised in 2011, it has strengthened his critics' strongest argument against the PST hike -- that it has nothing to do with flood protection.


Deveryn Ross is a political commentator living in Brandon.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 11, 2013 A15

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