BRANDON — The 2016 provincial election campaign is shaping up to be a combative affair, if the first leaders’ debate is any indication.

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BRANDON — The 2016 provincial election campaign is shaping up to be a combative affair, if the first leaders’ debate is any indication.

Sharing a stage as a trio for the first time, NDP Leader Greg Selinger, Progressive Conservative Brian Pallister and Liberal Rana Bokhari traded insults and accusations during their first chance to earn the favour of Manitobans in the long leadup to the spring vote.

The Wednesday event at Brandon’s Keystone Centre took place before an audience of municipal leaders gathered in the province’s second-largest city for an Association of Manitoba Municipalities convention.

Making her first appearance in a debate, Bokhari set the confrontational tone during her opening statement, during which she played to a the audience of elected officials by pledging to return all the proceeds from Selinger’s 2013 provincial sales-tax hike to municipalities — and offering them a rebate on all their PST payments.

"My opponent on my left has been a little inconsistent with the finances of this province," Bokhari quipped, drawing oohs from the audience that may have expected a more sedate discussion.

Bokhari also accused Pallister of running a complacent and secretive frontrunner’s campaign. Pallister, whose Progressive Conservatives are well ahead of the NDP and Liberals in the most recent polls, directed the Liberal leader to the PC website.

The nastiest exchange of the 75-minute debate, however, took place after Selinger accused Pallister of supporting two-tiered health care.

"You can’t make up facts, like that," said an angry Progressive Conservative leader, who responded by suggesting the NDP unwittingly promote two-tiered health care by forcing Manitobans to fly "all over the world" to see doctors.

Selinger then noted how angry Pallister appeared. "Not nearly as angry as half your caucus (is) about your leadership," the Tory leader retorted.

The basis for Selinger’s claim about Pallister stems from a 2013 radio interview, during which the Opposition leader spoke about private health clinics in North Dakota.

"I’m not convinced that every single service in the health care field should be provided by a government employee" Pallister said at the time. "I am a guy who believes that the private sector offers some competitive advantages in a number of areas and does a better job in some cases than government does."

After the debate concluded, Pallister said Selinger is entitled to his opinions but must not extrapolate on the facts. The Tory leader agreed the tone of the debate was less than cordial.

"If you sense frustration among the people here, I think it’s quite understandable," he said, referring to both the political opposition and Manitoban voters. "People are tired of paying more and getting less."

Bokhari, meanwhile, dismissed the notion she was being aggressive. "I’m real. I say it like it is. Especially in rural Manitoba, they love that," she said.

Several times during the debate, she asked for the audience to cheer for her. She earned the loudest applause of the event when she accused Selinger of failing to consult with municipalities before the province forced them to amalgamate.

Selinger conducted himself calmly, using the debate to promote the NDP’s record on infrastructure spending and flood protection.

Pallister derided this as well. "You can’t make an infrastructure pledge once every five years and expect to be taken seriously," he said.

The party leaders, who all played to the western Manitoba audience by extolling their rural roots, also discussed how to attract and retain doctors in rural and remote communities.

Selinger said the best way to do that is to recruit health-care professionals from within Manitoba. Bokhari said doctors will move to rural communities with good recreation amenities, such as hockey arenas, for their children.

The election campaign formally begins in mid-March. Voters go to the polls on April 19.

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca