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Andrew Swan is Manitoba’s Government House Leader and Attorney-General. (KEN GIGLIOTTI/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Andrew Swan is Manitoba’s Government House Leader and Attorney-General. (KEN GIGLIOTTI/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

On eve of Throne Speech, Manitoba NDP bracing for opposition to tax hike Add to ...

Manitoba’s government says the Throne Speech on Tuesday will outline ways to boost the economy, although the New Democrats will almost certainly spend much of the new legislature session fending off more criticism of their sales tax increase.

The Speech from the Throne, which starts a four-week fall sitting, will lay out plans for creating jobs and improving education, said Andrew Swan, government house leader and attorney-general.

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“It’s going to be focusing on the basics – making sure our economy continues to grow and that there are great jobs and opportunities for training for Manitoba families.”

The government may not have much time for new initiatives in the sitting because it has 35 bills left over from the previous session. Chief among them is one to formalize the sales tax increase – to 8 per cent from 7 per cent – that was announced in last April’s budget and took effect in July.

The Opposition Progressive Conservatives stalled that bill and many others in an attempt to halt the tax increase, which they say is illegal. They have promised a court challenge in the new year.

“We have fought a really good, long battle in terms of delaying the vote on the budget, which we feel is an important thing to do to give Manitobans time to consider, and to give the government time to consider the error of its ways,” Tory Leader Brian Pallister said.

Under the province’s balanced budget law, any increase to the sales tax must first be approved through a referendum. However, the government’s bill to raise the tax also suspends the referendum requirement.

The Tories used every question period in the previous session to denounce the tax increase and kept the legislature sitting through the summer. The NDP’s popularity dropped in opinion polls.

The New Democrats have defended the legality of raising the tax before the budget bill receives final approval. It is quite common for governments of all stripes to raise tobacco, fuel and other taxes on budget day, even though budgets only go to a final vote weeks or months later, they say.

The NDP and Tories reached a deal in August to end the logjam. The Tories agreed to allow the budget bill and all others left over from the last session to go to a final vote before the Christmas break. In exchange, the government agreed to extend next spring’s legislature sitting by a month.

Mr. Pallister said his party will live up to the agreement, allowing the NDP majority to pass the bills, but will challenge the rising tax in court.

“If this is allowed to go through and this precedent isn’t fought, then next year they could hike the [sales tax] again without a referendum.”

Other stalled bills that are to receive final approval in the coming weeks include proposed legislation to:

  • Provide annual public subsidies to political parties, based partly on their voter support in recent elections.
  • Require motor vehicle dealers to include all fees in their advertised prices.
  • Ensure more areas are accessible to the disabled.
  • Penalize health-care workers who snoop through patients’ personal information.

The government has tried to switch the focus of the public debate in recent weeks. “Jobs and the economy” is not only an oft-repeated phrase of late, it’s the new name of the economic development ministry, headed by former health minister Theresa Oswald.

The fall sitting is scheduled to conclude Dec. 5. The spring sitting is to start in March.

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