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Playing this right could lead PCs to government

Best opportunity to outsmart NDP

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The saliva is running pretty fast and furiously these days on the opposition benches of the Manitoba legislature.

In the wake of this week's provincial budget, Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Pallister finds himself suddenly possessing some pretty juicy ammunition to use against the NDP. So juicy, in fact, the Tories are attacking in question period with a relish and enthusiasm not seen in that caucus for years.

In question period this week, the Tories have more or less had their way with Premier Greg Selinger, Finance Minister Stan Struthers and the rest of the government caucus. The attack is being carried to the government on two closely related fronts.

First, there is the decision to raise the provincial sales tax to fund infrastructure. Selinger claims Manitoba needs additional money for infrastructure now, particularly at a time when it is facing a $1-billion bill for flood-proofing measures.

Finding the right angle of attack on the tax hike is not a simple matter. Although tax increases are rarely popular, Selinger knows many opinion leaders on this file, including the Business Council of Manitoba, support the idea of a bump to PST dedicated to infrastructure.

Pallister's job is to ensure the tax hike is really disliked among people of different demographics and economic backgrounds. He started down that road Thursday with a news conference in which he not only pledged to roll back the PST, but also identified spending cuts and other cost-savings that would exceed the $278 million the NDP says the tax hike will generate.

The list of measures Pallister identified included some promising suggestions. However, many of the big-ticket items -- including savings from improvements in tendering and procurement and benefits from joining the New West Partnership with other western provinces -- are mostly a triumph of marketing over mathematics.

The viability of his proposals is, thankfully for the Tories at least, not critically important right now. Pallister needs to hammer away at alternatives to a tax hike, and in the process drown out the supporters of the infrastructure tax.

The second issue here is the government's decision to gut the balanced- budget law to introduce the sales tax increase. The law is a legislative straw man. It was a gimmick of a law, introduced to convince Manitobans future governments would be prevented from raising taxes at any time, for any reason.

Forcing a referendum on tax increases was originally seen as the political trap from which no government could escape.

Selinger made it clear he would not pause to engage in an event that is, as a matter of fact, costly, time-consuming and ultimately open to abuse from special interests in these days of horrendously low voter turnout.

The NDP government is not, as the opposition would argue, breaking the law. It is entitled to change laws any time it wants. Nobody, for example, accused the federal Conservative government of "breaking the law" when it abolished the long-gun registry. However, the Tories are unlikely to watch quietly while the balanced-budget law is gutted.

It is true that in bypassing the need for a referendum, even some of the strident supporters of an infrastructure tax hike are getting nervous. However, in a world where only half of all registered voters turn out for a general election, it's unlikely anyone will hold a candlelight vigil to mark the death of a law that was never well understood.

On a go-forward basis, Pallister's ability to convince people the tax increase is not necessary is a far more promising strategy than lamenting the death of the law. The PCs need to make a convincing case that spending reductions, and not tax increases, are our salvation.

The Tories will need to be precise with their numbers, because there is support out there apart from the NDP government for this tax increase. Pallister's specific suggestions for spending cuts may not be entirely convincing but there is enough there to cause the government some discomfort.

Selinger and Struthers demonstrated their unease with the Tory strategy during question period, alleging Pallister's cuts would necessarily trigger the layoffs of doctors and nurses. That's a response that has more than a tinge of desperation to it. Selinger is much more convincing when he sticks to the reasons he needs the additional money for infrastructure; devoting too much time to ruminating over the Pallister cuts is playing to the Tory strength.

The Tories have, for more than a decade, failed consistently to come up with a message that resonated with voters. They were out-communicated, out-debated and out-strategized. They will never again get a better opportunity to carry the fight to the NDP government and control the message.

The key for Pallister and the Tories is to convince Manitobans this was an unnecessary tax hike. It he can do that, it will become a key that could eventually unlock the door to the premier's office.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 19, 2013 A4

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