WINNIPEG — Manitoba's official election campaign began Monday with promises from Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Pallister to continue to reduce taxes and keep a leash on spending if he wins a second mandate.
Two months after he cut the provincial sales tax to seven per cent from eight — a key commitment from the last election — Pallister visited the lieutenant-governor to start a 29-day campaign for the vote on Sept. 10.
"The question every voter has to ask themselves in this election is, who do you trust to keep their word to you and your family?" Pallister said outside the legislature, many of his party's candidates at his side.
The election was to be held Oct. 6, 2020, but earlier this year Pallister moved up the date by more than a year.
The campaign comes amid controversial health-care reforms that the New Democrats are putting at the centre of their campaign. Pallister's Tories have downgraded three of Winnipeg's six hospital emergency rooms to urgent care centres, which do not handle life-threatening events such as heart attacks.
The Tories have said the aim is to streamline health care and concentrate emergency rooms in locations where they have specialist support, but the New Democrats say the changes have resulted in people losing care in their neighbourhood.
"Manitobans deserve a real choice, a choice between a team that is going to cut health care like the Conservatives have, or a team that is going to be smart, strategic and compassionate about rebuilding health care like our team is," NDP Leader Wab Kinew said.
The early election has affected the Liberals the most. They had candidates nominated in a little more than half the province's constituencies by Monday. They also have much less money than the NDP and Tories.
"We've always held campaigns that are held together by bailing wire and twine, and this time I think we get to use a slightly higher grade of baling wire and twine," Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont joked.
"But we have a huge amount of experience and ultimately, if you look at election after election ... it's not necessarily the candidate with the most money that won."
The Tories secured the largest majority in Manitoba in a century in the 2016 election when they took 40 of 57 legislature seats.
Royce Koop, head of political studies at the University of Manitoba, said it will be an uphill battle for opposition parties to topple the Tories, who continue to lead in opinion polls and have raised exponentially more money.
"We're not starting with an evenly matched race. It's not like the ... contenders are equal in the polls," Koop said.
"That said, the campaign is just starting and we have an idea of what the terms of the campaign are going to look like."
The Tories swept the NDP from power in the last election after the New Democrats raised the provincial sales tax and started running a string of deficits. Pallister's government cut the sales tax and reduced the deficit by roughly half, partly by freezing public-sector wages, cutting management jobs and reducing subsidies for items such as sleep-apnea machines.
The NDP won 14 seats in 2016 and later elected Kinew as leader. Kinew has been the subject of Tory attack ads over old criminal convictions, for which he has since received record suspensions, and for an accusation that he assaulted a former girlfriend. That charge was stayed by the Crown in 2004, although the woman has maintained her accusation that Kinew threw her across the couple's living room.
The Liberals, who held four seats when the election was called, are hoping to become a political contender for the first time since the mid-1990s.
The Green party is hoping to score its first seat in Manitoba after coming close in the Winnipeg seat of Wolseley in 2016.
Steve Lambert, The Canadian Press