03/13/2014 05:02 EDT | Updated 05/13/2014 05:59 EDT

Manitoba government says Tories wrong to question job-creation numbers

WINNIPEG - Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger fired back at criticism over his job-creation calculations Thursday, saying the Opposition Progressive Conservatives used the same methodology when they were in power.

The NDP government has been criticized for claiming its plan to spend $5.5 billion over five years on infrastructure projects will create 58,900 jobs — a total that exceeds the number of unemployed people in the province.

The figure is based on a report from the Conference Board of Canada, which actually cites 58,900 person-years of employment over the five years, with anywhere from 8,500 to 13,400 jobs in any given year.

Tory Leader Brian Pallister says the government has been trying to mislead the public in its budget documents and press releases. But Selinger tabled in the legislature old press releases from the 1990's, when Pallister was a cabinet minister, that appear to use the same language.

"The leader of the Opposition, when he was minister for government services ... used person-years of employment and called them jobs," Selinger said. "I'd like to give him the opportunity to apologize right now."

Selinger also tabled a more-recent federal Conservative press release that used the same wording.

Pallister appeared caught off-guard and later told reporters the government was trying to distract people from the real issue.

"The real issue is that their minister yesterday stated in the house that they're creating 58,000 jobs and the Conference Board of Canada said that isn't the case."

The disputed jobs numbers are at the heart of the government's plan to convince voters that last year's sales tax increase — to eight per cent from seven — will boost the economy and fix roads and bridges.

If 58,900 long-term jobs are created, it would more than wipe out unemployment. Statistics Canada reported there were 35,100 jobless Manitobans in February.

In reality, the 58,900 figure counts long-term jobs multiple times. For example, one person's job, held for all five years, counts as five person-years of employment.

It also remained unclear Thursday how many of the new jobs can be attributed to the sales tax increase that the government said is vital to the infrastructure program.

Both the 58,900 person-years of employment and the 14,300 jobs cited by the conference board include current levels of infrastructure funding — about $729 million a year. The sales tax increase funds an additional $276 million this year and rises to $325 million by the end of the five-year spending program.

Pallister said there was another problem with the government's job numbers. He said the government has not revealed how many jobs would have been created had the government not raised the sales tax.

"How many jobs would Manitobans have created with the same money?"