WINNIPEG — Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Pallister was the main target as the heads of Manitoba’s four main political parties squared off Tuesday night in a televised debate.
Pallister, the frontrunner in opinion polls for next week’s provincial election, faced accusations he would cut government services, increase poverty and privatize parts of the health care system.
“You’ve mused about two-tier health care, you’ve mused about doing experiments with families in terms of how they’re treated,” NDP Leader Greg Selinger threw at Pallister during one exchange.
“If elected, would you privatize any part of our health care system or sell off any part of our Crown corporations?”
Pallister ruled out selling Crown corporations, but did not directly answer about health care.
“When we talk about two-tier health care, we’ve got it with Mr. Selinger,” Pallister said, referring to long hospital wait times and ambulance fees that top $500 in some rural areas.
Selinger, Liberal Leader Rana Bokhari and Green Party Leader James Beddome each chose to target Pallister with their one allotted question.
“Mr. Pallister, quite frankly, he’s the one who’s most likely going to be premier if the polls are any kind of indication, and I wanted to get some promises from him,” Beddome said afterward.
Beddome accused Pallister of planning to hurt the poor by cutting the provincial sales tax.
Selinger was also a target on occasion over the NDP government’s track record after 16 years in office, most notably a 2013 sales tax increase that broke an earlier campaign promise and stirred up public anger.
Selinger was accused by Pallister of planning another sales tax increase _ an accusation he denied.
Pallister also worked in jabs over the 2014 mutiny that Selinger faced when five cabinet ministers resigned after challenging his leadership.
“Mr. Selinger knows what it’s like to have caucus members leave who feel they’re not being listened to.”
Bokhari was often left out of the fray, and said later the 50-minute debate was too short.
“I kind of wish we’d had some more time. I would have liked to get some more jabs in there.”
While the NDP has sunk in opinion polls because of the tax hike and a growing deficit, the Tories have faced accusations they are planning deep cuts if elected.
Pallister said at the start of the election campaign that there are “no sacred cows” in his search for savings, but insisted front-line services will not be affected.
Asked by reporters following the debate to respond to Selinger’s question and rule out any further privatization of health care services, Pallister hedged, and said it would depend on input from workers.
“Some of the front-line workers might make suggestions like that. I don’t want to rule out suggestions that are going to come from people in our health-care system for getting better health care for Manitobans. I’m not an ideologue here.”