05/25/2013 12:10 EDT | Updated 07/25/2013 05:12 EDT

Manitoba NDP convention told provincial sales tax hike a good thing

BRANDON, Man. - The decision by Manitoba's governing New Democrats to raise the provincial sales tax has angered many voters. But far from shying away from it, the party plans to use it as a positive in the next election campaign.

"Making this decision ... actually gave us a huge opportunity, as in a way, it smoked out (Opposition Leader) Brian Pallister a little bit earlier than anticipated," Liam Martin, chief of staff to Premier Greg Selinger, told the NDP's annual convention Saturday in Brandon.

"Mere days after the budget was released, Pallister unveiled a plan that includes no real solutions during these times — just short-sighted and, frankly, mean cuts."

The NDP won a fourth consecutive mandate in 2011 in large part by painting the Progressive Conservatives, under then-leader Hugh McFadyen, as a party bent on spending cuts. While Pallister is the Tories' new leader, he was a cabinet minister in the 1990s, when the Tory government of the day cut spending.

That means the NDP won't have to "reinvent the wheel" for the next election campaign, Martin told delegates.

"(Pallister) says he will make some $550 million in cuts, and we know this means firing at least 1,000 front-line workers."

That number is a familiar refrain in Manitoba politics. The NDP accused the previous Tory government of firing 1,000 nurses in the 1990s.

Pallister has denied his plan would affect front-line jobs or services. Spending can be reduced by reducing administrative costs or leaving some positions vacant, he has said. He has also said the government's plan to raise the provincial sales tax to eight per cent from seven per cent as of July 1 is far worse and will harm families and businesses.

The next election is slated for October 2015 although the government can change the fixed election date to the following spring if a federal election is also called in the fall of 2015.

Recent opinion polls suggest the NDP is struggling after 13 years in power. The government has raised taxes and fees in the last two budgets and has pushed back its plan to balance the budget by two years, to 2017.

With the deficit almost unchanged at more than $500 million this year, the government is not ruling out more tax hikes

Martin said this year's sales tax hike means the next election campaign has effectively begun. He and Leslie Turnbull, a co-chair of the party's election planning committee in 2011, told convention delegates of the importance of a good ground war — knocking on doors and meeting voters one-on-one.

"It's the face-to-face contact ... which is the most effective way to persuade and motivate (voters)," Turnbull said.

Advertisements are also key, Turnbull added. She played a television commercial from the 2011 campaign that said a Tory government would cut services and privatize Crown-owned Manitoba Hydro.

"It persuaded undecided voters that there was too much at risk if the Conservatives were elected, and it got our supporters off their couches to vote for us on election day," Turnbull said.

Delegates debated more than a dozen resolutions Saturday and voted down a proposal to change the way the party elects its leaders.

The provincial council recommended the NDP abandon its delegate system for leadership votes and instead allow every party member a vote, as the federal New Democrats do. But the idea was defeated.

Bob Dewar, one of many party members to speak against the idea, said the delegate system allows for a more informed election.

"You have one-member, one vote, somebody sitting in their living room, putting an x, maybe not getting the information on the leadership candidates," Dewar said.

"When you come to convention (as a delegate), the leadership candidates are all there. You get to see them, speak with them, and then make up your mind."