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Health care dominates leaders forum in Manitoba ahead of fall election


Manitoba's three main party leaders promised more money for health care in their first debate leading up to the Oct. 3 provincial election.

Premier Heather Stefanson was on the defensive as the other leaders attacked the Progressive Conservative government's record on health care, which includes a bed shortage that forced dozens of intensive care patients to be flown to other provinces at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 90-minute forum was organized by the Association of Manitoba Municipalities.

"We have to hire more people to work in health care, and we're going to have to pay them to work in rural Manitoba and pay them to work in other areas of great need in our health-care system," NDP Leader Wab Kinew said Tuesday.

With the election six months away, Kinew laid out some campaign promises, although there were few details.

On top of bonuses for rural health-care workers, Kinew said an NDP government would cut some unspecified administrative costs at Shared Health, the body that co-ordinates many health services, and redirect the money to the front lines.

The NDP would also replace a closed jail in Dauphin with a community justice facility in the region, Kinew said, and set up a panel to determine where to best spend infrastructure money.

Stefanson said Kinew would have to raise taxes to pay for his promises. Manitoba has been running deficits every year since 2009, except for a slim $5-million surplus in 2019 before the start of the pandemic.

"It's very easy for an opposition party ... to get up and say whatever they want and promise the moon," Stefanson said after the debate.

Stefanson accused Kinew of having a secret agenda to raise taxes.

The accusation echoes one made in 2011, when Tory leader Hugh McFadyen accused NDP premier Greg Selinger of planning to raise the sales tax during a leaders debate. Selinger denied it, but raised the sales tax two years later. It was a factor in the NDP losing popular support and the ensuing election.

Kinew did not respond directly when asked by reporters whether, if elected, he would continue the Tories' long-term plan to phase out the education tax on property. The Tories have started the phaseout with rebate cheques, which the NDP has criticized as primarily benefiting the wealthy.

"I think all the details on our fiscal plan are things that we're going to roll out as we get closer to the election day," Kinew said.

Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont promised bonuses of up to $10,000 to health-care workers everywhere -- urban and rural -- to make up for years of salary freezes under the Tories.

"Part of this is to say, 'Thank you, we appreciate your work, we want you to stay in the health-care system,"' Lamont said.

Stefanson said her government has already moved to offer incentives to health-care workers. She pointed to a recent promise of $200 million to attract and retain more health-care professionals. It includes new hourly premiums for nurses who work weekends and bonuses for those who move to full-time from part-time positions.

Opinion polls for more than two years have suggested the NDP are leading the Tories in popular support, especially in Winnipeg, where most legislature seats are. Tory support began to slide under former premier Brian Pallister at the height of the pandemic and has not moved much since Stefanson replaced him in the fall of 2021.

All three leaders promised during the debate to increase funding to municipalities. The Tories froze annual base funding for several years but boosted it by an average of 28 per cent this year.

The three promised to work with municipalities to come up with a formula for annual increases that would take inflation into account.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 4, 2023. Top Stories

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