Kicking around numbers and new soccer pitches

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Another day, another party leader standing at a port-a-podium in front of a majestic building on a tree-lined campus in Brandon.

Yesterday it was PC Party boss Brian Pallister at Brandon University. Today it was NDP leader Greg Selinger at Assiniboine Community College’s North Hill campus.

Now I’ve known Selinger since the ’90s, when I was working for the Winnipeg Sun out of its city hall bureau and he was a left-leaning activist city councillor for St. Boniface.

We also ran into each other later on when I was working at the Legislature for the Tories. And after my return to journalism, we have developed what I believe is a mutual respect for each other. That despite our political DNA being at odds.

Despite him being the most unpopular premier in Canada, according to an Angus Reid Institute poll, and his party struggling to hold on to power after almost 17 years, I really kinda like the guy.

For a policy wonk who faced an embarrassing cabinet revolt last year, he’s always friendly and easy to talk to. However, I’ve never been behind the closed caucus/cabinet doors when his temper flares.

So there he is. On a warm spring morning, flanked by a couple of local NDP candidates and Brandon City Coun. Lonnie Patterson (South Centre).

Now city councilor’s outright endorsing candidates in the provincial election to me is in bad taste, but that’s a column for another day.

The NDP press release in my hand stated that the party is “committing to invest in two new soccer pitches at Assiniboine Community College.” It will also also partner with the city to build additional new fields based on the results of the ongoing municipal feasibility study.

All great and good and certainly projects that are desperately needed as the Optimist Park pitches have been flooded out beyond repair and the city’s growing soccer community is forced to play wherever it can find a piece of semi-sodded flat ground.

After reading his statement, Selinger went off-script.

“There is a difference in this election,” Selinger said. “We are offering policy choices at a time when you need to have a clear focus on what needs to be done.”

Regarding education, Selinger accused the PC Party of not committing to a new school in Brandon, or core funding for universities, or to keep tuition fees at the rate of inflation.

The Tories have repeatedly stated that they can’t make any full funding promises on projects until they get a good look at the NDP’s financials.

Pallister stated as much yesterday at BU:

“We have to get our province’s fiscal situation under control. The NDP has lost control of its spending,” Pallister said.

“The debt hole that we’re going to inherit is enormous. The question is how deep is it? We won’t know that until we get into government because the NDP is the most secretive government in Canada. It hides information It blacks out reports.

“It makes it hard to predict how bad the situation really is.”

So I put that question to Selinger.

“It’s an excuse James, as you know, you’ve been around for a while,” Selinger said, much to my amusement. “Every year, the auditor general puts out a statement of the finances of the Province of Manitoba. We put out a very robust fiscal outlook just before the election that should show where we’re going in terms of managing deficits and growing the economy.”

Selinger then stated that the province still hasn’t fully recovered from the 2007/08 recession, though Manitoba has fared better than others.

Selinger stated that economic growth is key both in Manitoba and Canada “in order to sustain the services that Manitobans expect in health care and education.”

So the validity of all the promises the NDP is making will be tied to economic growth?

Selinger said his infrastructure projects and education policies create jobs and trained workers to help stimulate the economy.

“Everything depends on growing the economy, but you have to focus on growing the economy to have the economy grow. You can’t just assume it’s going to do better. It actually will do worse, unless you’re focussed on it.”

OK. So let’s focus on some numbers for a minute.

The province’s third-quarter financial update for 2015 shows Manitoba's summary deficit stands at $773 million. That’s up from $351 million that was forecasted. The province's economic growth has slowed to 2% from 2.5%. And tax revenue has declined by $148 million.

And we are one of the most heavily taxed provinces in Canada.

Then there’s that greased pig of a promise to balance the books. Years ago — was it the last election? — the NDP promised to balance the books by by 2014/15. But that date has slipped back three times. The new target is now 2020.

That’s why the Tories say they can’t make any grandiose promises until they get a real close look at the NDP’s fiscal fiasco.

That’s why Selinger gets a little testy when asked about it.

Yes, Greg, I’ve been around for a long time. That’s why in the last election in 2011 then Tory leader Hugh McFadyen also stated he couldn’t make any formal cash commitments until he had a look at the NDP’s books.

And shortly thereafter, under the re-elected NDP, deficits started ballooning and the promise to balance the budget started to drift way.