Manitoba government accused of treating new bills as ‘blank sheet of paper’ after 2 of 19 released

The Manitoba government lifted a veil of secrecy on Wednesday around two of 19 pieces of legislation it introduced months earlier.

The province released two bills as legislators reconvened for the spring session of question period.

The Progressive Conservative government was forced Wednesday to defend its unusual tactic of introducing legislation late last year, but revealing only the titles of the bills, without any further details.

The government said it introduced legislation early to ensure it wouldn’t be blocked by the Opposition NDP, which used procedural tactics last spring to stall the government from introducing bills and its budget. 

Both tactics are within the rules of the legislature.

The names of the bills suggest they focus on significant topics such as the education system, health-care system and child-care programs.

Under one of the bills released Wednesday, private landowners will be able to remove beaver dams on their property without the permission of government.

The other focused on changes to the province’s apprenticeship system, which would reduce the time required to update program standards for trades.

The rest of the bills will be released over the next five sitting days, government House leader Kelvin Goertzen said.

Bills shouldn’t be placeholder: Liberals

On Wednesday, the Manitoba Liberals accused the government of using the bills announced last year as placeholders, claiming it appears they weren’t ready.

Leader Dougald Lamont flagged a recent Facebook comment from Tory MLA James Teitsma, who wrote “most of the legislation hadn’t even been finalized” when the bills were tabled.

Lamont accused the government of abusing its power.

“When I present a bill, it has to be approved by Legislative Council, it has to be translated. I don’t get to throw a blank sheet of paper on the desk and say, ‘By the way … I want this law passed,'” Lamont said.

He suggested other members of the Progressive Conservative government knew the introduced bills weren’t fleshed out.

“We need to change the rules to say that when you introduce a bill, it has to have content in it,” Lamont said. “It’s a bit like saying that when you build a bike, it has to have wheels.”

Lamont said the government shouldn’t get a pass for disrespecting the normal process.

Goertzen said he didn’t know if some bills weren’t written, but was aware the translation of some bills wasn’t ready when they were introduced. He said the government wanted to release the text of the legislation earlier this year, but the Liberals voted against that last December.

Deputy Premier Kelvin Goertzen said the government chose the unconventional approach of introducing its bills to prevent the NDP from blocking its agenda. (David Lipnowski/The Canadian Press)

If the Liberals permitted it, the content of the bills would have been released much earlier than the normal spring introduction, Goertzen said. The government has a duty to pass its agenda, he added.

“There’s always going to be a reason for the opposition to try to use the rules in their favour. I’m not being critical of that, but I am critical when it takes weeks away from debating and introducing bills.”

Under the current formula, the new bills will escape some deserved scrutiny, NDP House leader Nahanni Fontaine said.

“How can we as the opposition, as MLAs that are elected to understand the legislation that’s coming down … do our job properly when we don’t have the information?”

Province may allow more debate

She said the mid-March deadline for second reading of the bills is only one day after all the bills must be released.

Fontaine called on the government to extend the deadline. Goertzen said he is open to discussions.

One day earlier, several prominent Manitobans, including former provincial and federal parliamentarians, signed a letter to the province’s three main political parties, urging them to use more civility and transparency.

Paul Thomas, professor emeritus of political studies at the University of Manitoba, was one of the signatories. He said decorum at the legislature has deteriorated in recent years and the recent bickering is a consequence of that.

“We can’t have this gamesmanship going on,” he said. “We need to have vigorous debate, but we need also to have informed debate.”

The letter called on the government to release all 19 bills by Thursday and not proceed to second reading until after at least 14 legislative sitting days.

Money for COVID, capital expenses

Question period resumed Wednesday under the same physically distant measures from three months earlier. One-quarter of Manitoba’s 57 MLAs are in the legislative assembly, while the rest are participating virtually. 

The government is vowing “one of the most robust legislative agendas in Manitoba history,” it said in a news release Wednesday, including more COVID-19 measures and a modernization of the education system.

Meanwhile, Finance Minister Scott Fielding announced the government will seek authority from the legislature to spend an additional $450 million on COVID-19 response and other capital commitments.

About $400 million would go toward pandemic response costs and the early stages of the immunization campaign, while $50 million would be spent on new school construction projects, including land purchases, a news release says.

No details were provided on what exactly is meant by pandemic response costs.

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