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This article was published 16/3/2016 (2044 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Go big or go home.
That is not the slogan that Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Pallister will use in this provincial election campaign. However, given that he is pinning his electoral hopes on a bold and risky pledge to lower the PST, it's certainly got potential to become the unofficial theme of his campaign.
It is not a new pledge; Pallister has been making this promise ever since NDP Leader Greg Selinger made the decision in 2013 to boost the PST to eight per cent, with the extra point going to fund infrastructure projects.
Overall, Pallister made a good impression on the first day of the campaign. With campaign events in Winnipeg, Brandon and Portage la Prairie, Pallister looked trim and confident. His attacks against the incumbent NDP were timely and well-constructed. If he is the premier in waiting, and polls tell us he is, Pallister looked the part.
However, there were curious moments.
First, even as he was promising to trim the PST, Pallister said bluntly he would not rule out other tax increases to help him bring the treasury back into balance.
Pallister would not name the taxes he would consider raising, leaving many at his Wednesday event scratching their heads about whether he had, in fact, just opened the door to additional revenue measures to offset the cut in PST. (Pallister is expected to make another tax-related announcement today that may, or may not, further explain what he really meant.)
The second curious moment came when he talked about his plan to find efficiencies that could help lower overall spending, a key part of his three-headed pledge to roll back the PST, maintain NDP levels of infrastructure spending and protect core services. Pallister said that in his drive to find efficiencies, there was no area of government that would be spared. "There are no sacred cows," Pallister told reporters and supporters on Wednesday.
The comment about not ruling out other, future tax increases is simply confusing. One can only assume that he is looking at restoring some of the bite of the Balanced Budget Legislation to make any future tax hikes incredibly difficult to accomplish. But if that is his ultimate goal, then why not just come out and say that his government does not believe tax increases are necessary to restore fiscal order?
On the matter of sacred cows, Pallister is either unaware of how valuable his comment is to his opponents, or he does not care. The truth of the matter is that Selinger and the NDP will be doing everything they can to portray Pallister as a fiscal hawk who will slash spending and in doing so, compromise core government services. On Wednesday, Pallister did something that he should have tried to avoid in this campaign at all costs: he provided his enemies with a great sound bite that will undoubtedly come back to haunt him later in the campaign.
Pallister has worked diligently over the past two years to tweak his messaging in a bid to defuse NDP allegations that a PC government will cripple core services. Along with rolling back the PST and sustaining infrastructure spending, Pallister has pledged to protect front-line services and the people who provide them. Recently, Pallister added that significant savings could be had by reducing the topmost levels of the civil service, a move he argued would not in any way damage service delivery.
Pallister has also repeatedly promised to conduct a value-for-money audit across government to eliminate waste, duplication, flawed tendering processes and other inefficiencies. Pallister repeated on Wednesday a frequent claim that these shortcomings in the NDP's overall fiscal management would produce savings worth "tens, hundreds of millions of dollars."
The idea that any government can forgo $300 million in PST revenue, find "hundreds of millions of dollars" in pure efficiencies, while also protecting core services, is a stretch. The loss in revenue is too big, and the potential savings modest and uncertain. Not impossible, but certainly a very difficult trick to accomplish.
Of course, Pallister does not want his PST pledge to be viewed in purely fiscal terms. He would much rather voters saw this as an commitment to restore integrity and honesty to government, an area where Selinger is vulnerable.
After all, Selinger repeatedly promised he would never raise the PST, right up until the 2013 budget when he did exactly that. Pre-election polls have conclusively shown that Selinger's inability to keep that promise, and his initial reluctance to own up to his flip-flop on the issue, have severely damaged his credibility with voters. Pallister said repeatedly that his promise to roll back the PST is one he will keep, come hell or high Red River waters.
Unfortunately, Pallister's strongest message on the PST file (that he is a leader voters can trust, and that Selinger is not) is built upon a very shaky foundation.
As the campaign unfolds, Pallister will have to work hard to ensure the weaknesses in his plan to protect infrastructure spending and government services and roll back the PST do not, in and of themselves, become an issue of integrity.
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.