Tory leader’s denial of flip-flop hard to reconcile

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Politicians rarely ever die from a flip-flop. It's denial that leads to their demise.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/11/2015 (2465 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Politicians rarely ever die from a flip-flop. It’s denial that leads to their demise.

A good case in point comes from Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Pallister, a man who has been very newsworthy of late. From last week’s alternative throne speech and high-profile fundraising dinner to Tuesday’s Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce luncheon, Pallister has been a one-man headline machine.

At the luncheon, however, the headlines are almost sure to focus on the fact he is backtracking as fast as his polished brogues can carry him from a 2013 pledge to cut government spending by one per cent to help balance the budget.

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Manitoba Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Pallister spoke at the The Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce lunch Tuesday.

At Tuesday’s luncheon speech, and then again in a scrum with reporters afterward, Pallister is now saying he will cut the pace of growth in government spending by one percentage point.

This, Pallister assured the reporters, is exactly what he said in 2013.

First off, Pallister promised to cut spending by one percentage point. That means going one point below what the NDP government spent the year before. He’s been asked about that pledge, and the implications, and he never backed down. Until now. Clearly Pallister knows some Manitobans are concerned he will “slash” government programs, as the NDP constantly claims. And he’s not willing to carry that baggage during next April’s election.

However, as was mentioned earlier, the big problem here is not the flip-flop. Pallister has acknowledged rolling back government spending is not a realistic option. Given the political mood in the country, and the fiscal realities facing Manitoba, that is not a bad position to take.

However, his refusal to acknowledge the flip-flop is curious. One of Pallister’s strongest cards right now is pointing out, as he does with fierce frequency, Premier Greg Selinger flip-flopped on raising the PST to fund infrastructure. Selinger said in the 2011 election campaign he would never raise the PST for any reason. And, a year later, that’s exactly what he did.

Pallister’s flip-flop is, of course, a much smaller deal than Selinger’s. And yet, when your main political opponent is rightly accused of breaking a solemn pledge, it’s a good idea not to fall into the same trap. And that is more or less where Pallister finds himself.

There are other problems with Pallister’s pledge to heal the treasury by slowing the rate of spending increases. And they are mostly of a mathematical nature.

Pallister said Tuesday limiting the annual increase in expenditures to one percentage point less than the average of NDP spending increases would ultimately balance the budget. The numbers do not support Pallister’s assertion.

Pallister claimed the NDP under Selinger has increased expenditures by an average of five per cent every year. By limiting spending increases to just four per cent — or one point less than the NDP — Pallister said his government could produce about $125 million in savings each year.

There are a number of problems with this equation.

First, contrary to Pallister’s charge, the NDP has increased spending by an average of 3.9 per cent annually since 2010, when accounting rules were changed. And that includes the 2011-12 fiscal year when the costliest flood in Manitoba history required hundreds of millions of dollars in un-budgeted expenditures, increasing total spending by nearly 11 per cent. Take that one year out of the equation, and assign to it the average of the other years, and you have annual spending increases of about 2.8 per cent.

That means Pallister would have to cut spending below two per cent across the board to achieve his target, and that will be hard to do given the demands in health care, education and justice, just to name three priority departments.

It’s also important to note even with those modest spending increases, the NDP failed to balance the budget, going six consecutive fiscal years with a deficit. This, largely a result of the fact economic growth has been so minimal, means there has been no real opportunity for the province to grow itself out of deficit.

This leaves Pallister in a difficult spot. He continues to maintain that a balanced budget is a core of his fiscal plan. He has also (now) said severe austerity measures are not part of the way forward for Manitoba.

What we don’t know is how Pallister will reconcile other pledges — rolling back the PST hike, increasing the basic personal exemption and ending income tax bracket creep — that will easily stretch into the nine-figure range. The PST rollback alone will mean Pallister will have to find another $300 million annually just to keep infrastructure spending where it is now, something Pallister has also promised to do.

So far, the Tory leader has presented Manitobans with a mathematically challenged pledge to slow government spending, something that will not balance the budget nor pay for his priority programs and initiatives.

Perhaps before next April’s election, Pallister will reconcile his flip-flop, reframe his fiscal priorities and come up with a more salient plan that offers real hope for a balanced budget and viable government services.

If Pallister continues to deny the flip-flop, and clings to his shaky math, he will most certainly be extending a lifeline to an NDP government that has done more than enough to warrant defeat in April.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

History

Updated on Wednesday, November 18, 2015 10:58 AM CST: Adds picture

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