Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Pallister wants Manitobans, and specifically Winnipeggers, to get to know him and his party. The Tory leader has been reworking some of the structure of his organization, to raise cash and reinvigorate the legislative caucus. The Tories have an image problem, he concedes.
Others would suggest, however, the party that seeks to be a viable government option for voters also has developed an identity problem.
In recent elections, the Progressive Conservatives migrated from their conservative roots to appeal to urban voters, particularly in Winnipeg where dreams of government are made or broken.
Mr. Pallister has yet to develop sweeping policy that will comprise an election platform for the 2015 general elections. He is loath to express himself on the errors the party made in 2011, under the leadership of Hugh McFadyen. But he gave some hint, in a meeting Tuesday with the Free Press editorial board of his views on fiscal policy and his expectations of his caucus.
First up is economic policy. Mr. Pallister says he wants to find out what's on people's minds, but his aim is clear: ease the tax burden of Manitobans. The NDP, having campaigned on a promise not to raise taxes, instead has hiked service fees and expanded the reach of retail sales tax. The Tories want Manitobans, too heavily taxed already, to know they are getting hosed.
Mr. Pallister told the Free Press he believes in indexed income tax rates, to prevent "bracket creep" from penalizing rising incomes. This is a welcome sign and, along with the Tory position to raise the basic personal exemption by $2,000, it would offer relief to Manitoba taxpayers who are among the few in Canada whose income tax regimes are not indexed to inflation.
Further, Mr. Pallister said he would make balancing the province's budget and getting back to surpluses a priority. The Selinger government has pushed out its balanced budget deadline to 2017, while under Hugh McFadyen the Tories in 2011 said it would take until 2018 to return to surplus.
It was a curious proposal for the conservative party that has always painted the NDP as profligate, poor managers of the public treasury and incapable of good fiscal planning.
Manitoba was barely touched by the recession and should not be running on deficit funding, yoking new generations with massive, accumulated debt. Mr. Pallister says his party will capitalize on this in the months ahead as the party rolls out its consultations and policy framework.
Fundamentally, he said, his caucus critics -- essentially a cabinet in waiting -- will be expected to work harder, plumb government records to elicit facts and data that reveal mismanagement and poor service delivery. His party members will be expected to knock on doors, raise their profile, hear concerns of ordinary voters and drum up donations.
Mr. Pallister has an ambitious agenda to put Manitoba on a "path to prosperity." In vote-rich Winnipeg, where rising property taxes are picking pockets, the Progressive Conservatives may find fertile ground in which to plant such ideas. Focusing first on tax policy and balanced budgets is a hopeful sign the Tories are reclaiming a conservative identity.