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BRANDON -- His critics have slammed his plan as a flip-flop, but Steve Ashton's promise to hold a referendum regarding the controversial PST hike is a solid political strategy that has the potential to lift the NDP from its polling doldrums and cause problems for the Opposition Progressive Conservatives and Liberals.
Ashton promises that, if elected as leader of Manitoba's New Democratic Party, he will give Manitobans the opportunity to decide whether to keep, scrap or revise the PST increase. "If I'm elected... one of the first moves that I will make is to allow Manitobans to have their voice through a referendum on the PST," he said.
"I believe it was the right thing to do to bring in the PST increase," he added, "but it's also the right thing to do to allow Manitobans to have their say." He anticipates the referendum would be held by no later than June 30.
While Premier Greg Selinger refused to respond to Ashton's referendum promise, the other leadership challenger, Theresa Oswald, stated that "a referendum after the fact is not the kind of public consultation I'm proposing... he needs to explain where he would find the funding for infrastructure renewal, health care and education."
Ashton's referendum pledge is a smart move, for several reasons.
First, it positions him as the only leadership candidate with a plan to address the issue that has caused much of the NDP's slide in popular support. Selinger is permanently linked to the mess he created, while Oswald appears to be arguing that the new PST money should be used to fund a range of government spending.
If attacked for having previously supported and defended the PST hike, Ashton has an easy response -- unlike Oswald, he understood and respected his responsibility to maintain cabinet solidarity. It is an argument that will resonate with many NDP leadership delegates who value loyalty over personal ambition.
Second, the upside of Ashton's plan far outweighs any risks. If the referendum is defeated, he can take credit for having given Manitobans the opportunity to kill the tax increase. If it passes, he can take credit for delivering the referendum that was required by law, legitimizing the tax hike and defusing the controversy.
Third, he knows that a large portion of the public likely agrees with him. Indeed, a poll conducted in 2011 revealed that almost two-thirds of Manitobans supported the idea of a one-percentage-point PST increase dedicated entirely to infrastructure.
That same year, a PST hike to support infrastructure improvements was advocated by the Business Council of Manitoba, the Association of Manitoba Municipalities, the Infrastructure Funding Council and a number of other organizations that play key roles in the provincial economy. Many of those groups would likely campaign with Ashton as part of the "Yes" campaign.
Fourth, such a referendum would represent a tactical trap for both opposition parties. For the Liberals, it would be all but impossible to oppose a plan that closely mirrors the proposal unveiled by party leader Rana Bokhari three months ago.
For the Tories, an infrastructure referendum could cause a split within their party, pitting municipal and business leaders who support and benefit from infrastructure spending against those in the party, including leader Brian Pallister, who insist such a tax increase is unnecessary.
Even more significantly, a referendum on the PST hike in advance of the next provincial election would take Pallister's strongest electoral weapon out of his hands, especially if the referendum passes. It would necessitate a complete recalibration of the Tories' election strategy, forcing them to fight the campaign on issues the NDP are far more comfortable with -- the future of health care, education and Manitoba Hydro being the most notable examples.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly for the NDP, Ashton's referendum pledge may signal a willingness to admit and correct the mistakes of the past few years, and to deliver a more transparent and accountable approach to governing. If viewed as sincere, the strategy could woo back many disaffected voters who are currently parking their votes with other parties.
Ashton still has a lot of work to do in order to become NDP leader, but his referendum pledge is a credible start in the right direction.
Deveryn Ross is a political commentator living in Brandon.
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