WINNIPEG —; Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger expressed optimism as he launched a provincial election campaign Wednesday that his battered, 16-year-old New Democratic government can overcome polls that put it in the back seat.
“We’ve listened to Manitobans on what their priorities are and we’ve put forward a program that they have said is their top priority — infrastructure and jobs and the ability to look after people,” Selinger said after asking Lt.-Gov. Janice Filmon to dissolve the legislature to trigger a 35-day campaign for an April 19 vote.
“We hope (Manitobans) will understand that we haven’t always got it right in how we initiated those initiatives, but we are showing results.”
The NDP has been in power since 1999, but polls heading into the campaign suggest the party is on the ropes — some 20 points behind the Opposition Progressive Conservatives and in a battle for second place with the Liberals, who captured one legislature seat in the last election.
The New Democrats have faced public backlash over a 2013 decision to raise the provincial sales tax and Selinger barely survived an internal challenge to his leadership last year. He has defended the tax increase as necessary to fund infrastructure projects and shore up the economy, but his polling numbers have not improved.
The NDP faces a well-funded Progressive Conservative party under leader Brian Pallister, who is a former MP, and a revived Liberal party under Rana Bokhari, a lawyer who has worked to raise the Liberal profile since taking over in 2013.
Pallister kicked off the party’s campaign in the heart of Selinger’s riding of St. Boniface in Winnipeg. The Conservative leader reminded voters about his party’s promise to roll back the sales tax by one percentage point if it forms government.
READ MORE: Manitoba Tories promise to cut PST to 7% if elected
The $300 million that would cost would be recouped by cutting government waste, he said. No government service is untouchable and all options are on the table, he said.
“It’s about getting a handle on this freight train of spending increases that the NDP is driving,” Pallister said. “There are no sacred cows here. The NDP has overspent in virtually every department.”
Selinger warned that the Tories and Liberals would cut government services.
“The choices are clear. They are stark,” he said.
Bokhari began her campaign, surrounded by a handful of candidates, with a promise to bring in all-day kindergarten. She said the promise would cost $50 million — a figure that wouldn’t include school expansions or upgrades — and would come out of “general revenues.”
READ MORE: Manitoba Liberals promise all-day kindergarten
Bokhari said a full costing of the party’s promises will come next week.
Internal documents obtained by in 2014 showed the governing NDP built a file for over a decade on the idea, but decided to focus on capping class sizes from kindergarten to Grade 3 instead. Bokhari couldn’t say what would happen to that commitment if the Liberals were elected.
She said Manitoba voters are eager for change and — unlike her opponents who have been in public office for years — Bokhari said she is the only one capable of providing it.
“They are true politicians, in the worst sense of the word,” she said. “There is room for change.”
The NDP held 35 of 57 legislature seats at dissolution, while the Tories held 19 and the Liberals had one. There were two vacancies — former NDP cabinet ministers who resigned last year.
After Selinger raised the sales tax, and as public anger remained high, five of Selinger’s top cabinet ministers called on him to step down to help the party’s fortunes rebound.
Selinger opted for a leadership race instead. He won 51 per cent of the votes on a second ballot. Many stalwarts in the legislature chamber and the party’s back rooms have since left. Selinger is entering this campaign without many of the veterans from previous elections.