Manitoba Speaker allows introduction of bills without text because ‘no provision anywhere’ says otherwise

Manitoba’s Speaker of the House threw out a complaint made by the NDP about 19 bills introduced without text. Critics worry the ruling sets a dangerous precedent for what is supposed to be an open democracy.

The Pallister government introduced 19 bills to the legislature last fall and hadn’t made any text available publicly. The Opposition NDP had filed a complaint, saying the government should not be allowed to introduce bills without revealing what they’re about.

Myrna Driedger dismissed that complaint Thursday, saying it is in fact allowed.

“There is no provision anywhere … in any of our rules, which enforces the immediate distribution of bills when introduced,” said Driedger during question period.

“While I can appreciate the concerns raised by the honourable Official Opposition house leader, I must respectfully rule that there is no point of order.”

Nahanni Fontaine, the NDP house leader, had argued that the Progessive Conservatives did not respect the intent of a rule of the Legislative Assembly, specifically a section that explains how a government bill becomes specified.

She argued that the first reading of the bills did not occur within 20 sitting days of the government’s throne speech, and that the bills did not undergo the specifying process.

“I appreciate the argument she presented on this matter, but her interpretation of [the rule] is incorrect,” said Driedger.

Two separate groups sent letters — one of which were signed by three former MPs — to the Manitoba government earlier this month, urging the content of the 19 bills to be made available. The concern is that the move is not normal practice in an open democracy and it could set a dangerous precedent in the future.

Most of the 19 bills have now been presented, revealing what they are about. The bills — some of which revolve around health care, education and child care — are set for a second reading some time this month.

Premier Brian Pallister blamed the NDP when asked about the lack of transparency last week, saying their stalling of the 2020 budget a year ago caused a backlog that is playing out now.

The PCs also asked both opposition parties for unanimous consent in December of last year so the bills could be distributed and read before the spring legislative session, but the request was refused, Pallister said.

NDP Leader Wab Kinew last week accused the government of “standing in the way of transparency.”

While speaking with reporters after Thursday’s question period, Kinew and Manitoba Liberals Leader Dougald Lamont each said the ruling signified the rules of the legislative assembly need to be strengthened.

“It turns out it’s perfectly fine to bring in 19 blank bills because we don’t have any rules against it,” said Lamont during a scrum, adding that precedent was made by the NDP in 2008.

“That’s it. We have bad rules … It’s unbelievable we need to change the rules so bills have text.”

Kelvin Goertzen, government house leader, says he has approached the opposition parties about changing rules about bills for several months.

The deal has been that opposition parties can select five bills to hold over into the fall session, so the government could pass its agenda “within a reasonable amount of time and reasonable debate,” he said.

Thursday’s ruling is not exploiting a loophole, says Goertzen, citing that the rule in question is old. (Ian Froese/CBC)

“That has fallen apart because of the Opposition [NDP’s] decision to try to blockade bills from being debated,” Goertzen told reporters, adding that he would like to get back to that process.

Kinew, meanwhile, finds Driedger’s ruling dangerous.

“Effectively, a government can — without giving the text of a bill — guarantee passage of that legislation, which to me is a really troubling precedent that I think is undemocratic,” he said.

This ruling allows any Manitoba government to introduce legislation without telling anyone what it is about and have it become law, said Kinew.

“This is unprecedented. This is a new abuse of the rules by the PCs, and unfortunately it has been given permission to be repeated in the future.”

Goertzen says it isn’t a loophole being exploited, citing that the rule in question is old. But he’s open to discussing how bills can be introduced, debated and voted upon within a reasonable time.

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