A few zingers and laughs, but leaders rarely strayed off-message

The only encounter between the three major party leaders to be televised live (Shaw TV Winnipeg) in Manitoba occasionally engaged provincial election front-runners NDP Leader Greg Selinger and Conservative Leader Hugh McFadyen in heated exchanges.
Even Liberal Leader Jon Gerrard, a distant third in the polls, was able at times to get in barbed comments, gaining sporadic cheers from the audience of about 200 attending the fourth Provincial Leaders Forum sponsored by WinnipegREALTORS® and the Manitoba Real Estate Association.
The outbursts from the front-runners delighted their supporters at the Franco-Manitobain Cultural Centre on September 14, who enthusiastically cheered or laughed loudly whenever their favoured candidate seemed to score a point against a political opponent.
In what has become a rather lacklustre campaign leading up to the October 4 provincial election — pointed out to the candidates by forum moderator Kim Babij of Shaw TV  — the audience seemed to eagerly anticipate anything off message that would invigorate the campaign.
They were periodically rewarded, but for the most part, the leaders stayed on script when discussing issues ranging from the economy, health care, crime, aboriginal concerns, education taxes on property and the land transfer tax. 
The fact that the leaders were only staying on their party’s message was mentioned by CJOB-68 talk show host Richard Cloutier, who was on the media panel, which also included Global TV’s Peter Chura and Mary Agnes-Welch from the Winnipeg Free Press. 
Cloutier said anyone wanting to learn about each party’s platform merely had to go to their respective websites. What he wanted to hear was unscripted answers to questions, he added.
The biggest laugh of the evening came when McFadyen made a remark about the candidates needing to get “better suits” to engage voters, an allusion to an NDP attack ad which ends with a comment about McFadyen only having a “nice suit.”  
McFadyen continually criticized the NDP’s 12-year record while in power, accusing Selinger’s promise to balance the province’s budget within three years a “phony” plan that could only be achieved through implementing significant tax hikes. 
Selinger said McFadyen’s accusation was “false” and a “bogeyman.”
Selinger attacked McFadyen's role as an advisor in the former Gary Filmon government, which he said balanced the budget through health care job cuts and decreased spending on education. He claimed McFadyen would privatize Crown corporations such as Manitoba Hydro, using the example of MTS as his benchmark, which was privatized by the Filmon Conservatives.
When Gerrard attempted to question McFadyen on policy statements by candidates that were contrary from those he endorsed, the Conservative leader replied, “With only one seat in the house you don’t run the risk of contradicting you” to peals of laughter from the audience.
McFadyen did quickly apologize for the zinger.
Gerrard later scored a point against Selinger when the premier began a convoluted non-reply to a question about lowering the land transfer tax, which penalizes home buyers. “I thought the question was about the land transfer tax?” asked Gerrard. McFadyen joined in by saying that Selinger “evaded the question.”
The Conservative leader promised to exempt all first-time home buyers from the tax, if elected, while Gerrard agreed that the tax was onerous and his party would take steps to reform the tax.
In terms of education taxes levied on property, Gerrard and McFadyen promised they would over time commit to having 80 per cent of education funding come from provincial revenues, as proposed by the Manitoba Education Financing Coalition’ representing 250,000 Manitobans through 40 organizations, including MREA and WinnipegREALTORS®. Selinger claimed his government was headed in that direction, but Gerrard interjected by saying that was only through some questionable math. 
“There is NDP math, and there is real math,” said Gerrard. The true amount of education funding from general revenues is now closer to 62 per cent, not the 72 per cent claimed by Selinger, he added.
The forum will be rebroadcast on Shaw TV on September 17 at 6 p.m., September 22 at 6:30 p.m. and on September 22 at 8 p.m.