In his strongest words to date and on the eve of a provincial election campaign, Progressive Conservative Leader Hugh McFadyen unequivocally distanced himself and his party from the Tory government of former premier Gary Filmon.
At a debate hosted by the Manitoba Teachers' Society Wednesday morning, McFadyen said the Filmon government went too far in some of its cost-cutting measures during the 1990s, and if a PC government were elected Oct. 4, it would not repeat those mistakes.
"We need to learn from the mistakes of the past," he told the audience of about 200 educators.
The admission comes as Manitobans get ready to head to the polls Oct. 4 in an election some observers say is McFadyen's to lose. It also shows how well NDP attack ads against McFadyen and Conservative cost-cutting have resonated with voters.
After the debate, McFadyen said the NDP strategy is to go back 23 years and attack a past government instead of focusing on the present.
"The reality is there are some hard feelings about the restraints of the past and that some of the cuts went further than they should have," McFadyen said. "With the benefit of experience, we don't want to repeat that."
McFadyen said while it took a long time for the province to recover from those budget cuts, caused by a recession and reduced federal transfer payments, it's not in his game plan to rip a page from Filmon if he becomes premier.
"We need to have a balanced approach," he said, adding a McFadyen government would not raise taxes to balance the province's books.
Filmon's cuts to front-line services, particularly in health care, have become the drumbeat of the NDP bid to win a fourth majority government in a row.
That strategy started early in the year and continued at the debate when Premier Greg Selinger accused McFadyen of wanting to rip $500 million from the NDP's 2010 budget. That budget was the first year of the NDP's five-year economic recovery plan and called for five deficit budgets before the government's books are back in the black.
The leaders accused one another of twisting the truth. In fact, the Conservative amendment was introduced by finance critic Heather Stefanson during the vote on the NDP's recovery plan with the intent being to shorten the time needed to control the deficit from five years to two.
The NDP said the Conservative amendment would have purged $500 million from government spending during a recession, resulting in massive cuts.
Selinger said Wednesday the growth of Manitoba's economy -- real GDP is projected to grow 2.8 per cent this year, slightly better than the national average -- is a sign the NDP plan is working.
"We'll follow through on the plan and we're meeting targets already," he said.
Liberal Leader Jon Gerrard, whose party is trailing the Conservatives and the NDP in polls, said it's his job to be the voice of reason and give voters a third option.
"We want to provide a different and distinctive point of view," he said after the debate.
The debate, the unofficial campaign kickoff, focused mostly on public education and did not reveal much in terms of platform promises for the three parties. Each will introduce its own in staged announcements once the race officially starts, likely on Sept. 6.
Selinger made one commitment, without providing details: His election platform will promise a reduction in class size for early grades, though not a provincewide cap on class size.
McFadyen also tried to take away another of the NDP's '90s bogeymen. The Filmon government published school-by-school scores of provincewide math and language arts tests and had planned to expand the subjects tested and expand the testing to more grades.
"No one is proposing a return to the provincewide model of standards tests," McFadyen told the teachers.
The Conservative leader also said his party will come out with a plan during the campaign to reduce class sizes for kindergarten to Grade 4, with 20 students being a reasonable target.
He also said he would not bring in legislation to cap the size of classes as it would be more beneficial to work with teachers and school boards.
-- with files from Nick Martin