Government should scrap Bill 64, other stalled legislation in light of premier's early exit: Manitoba NDP

The Opposition NDP called on the Progressive Conservative government to abandon efforts to push through five bills stalled earlier this year, including the controversial Bill 64, which would overhaul Manitoba's public education system.

Controversial Education Modernization Act among 5 bills Opposition now wants Tory government to abandon

Opposition to Bill 64 has continued to show up across Manitoba in the form of lawn signs, like these put out by the Manitoba NDP. (Darin Morash/CBC)

Manitoba's Official Opposition is calling on the Progressive Conservative government to abandon efforts to push through five bills stalled earlier this year, now that Premier Brian Pallister has announced his plans to leave office early.

Those proposed pieces of legislation include the controversial Bill 64, also known as the Education Modernization Act, which would overhaul Manitoba's public education system.

Wednesday's update comes one day after Pallister announced he will step down before the next provincial election, set for 2023, though the premier did not say specifically when he plans to leave politics.

"When you have a premier resigning mid-term, it's clearly a sign that something has gone wrong," Opposition NDP Leader Wab Kinew said at a news conference on Wednesday.

"Now that we have a lame-duck premier, it doesn't make any sense for Manitoba to continue to pursue his legislative agenda."

Under the rules of Manitoba's legislature, the Opposition is allowed to mark up to five government bills as designated, which means they need to be held over until the fall sitting.

The bills the NDP stalled this spring and now wants ditched also include an amendment to the Labour Relations Act that would eliminate the requirement for binding arbitration after a 60-day dispute between a union and employer — potentially resulting in strikes and lockouts lasting indefinitely, critics say — and one that would see the Public Utilities Board approve electricity rates in five-year intervals rather than annually.

The NDP also wants the province to scrap amendments to the Liquor, Gaming and Cannabis Control Act that critics say could lead to privatization of liquor sales, and the Protection of Critical Infrastructure Act (Bill 57), which opponents have said could stifle legitimate protests.

Wab Kinew is the leader of Manitoba's Opposition NDP. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

Opposition House leader Nahanni Fontaine said she wrote to government House leader Kelvin Goertzen asking for the bills to be immediately withdrawn — a request she called "perfectly reasonable and absolutely doable."

"In light of yesterday's news, it's important that the PC caucus take a step back and review whether or not they want to be associated with Brian Pallister's legislative agenda," Fontaine said alongside Kinew, adding that she would be "more than willing" to work with Goertzen on the request.

"Kelvin and I have developed a really good working relationship. I respect him. He has, I hope, respect for me as well. And so it's something that we can pursue together."

That withdrawal could come one of three ways, Fontaine said: prorogation of the House (which would end the legislative session and kill all five bills), unanimous leave or permission from the House to withdraw the bills, or rejection of the bills at their second readings.

Nahanni Fontaine says she wants to work with Kelvin Goertzen to withdraw all five bills the NDP stalled this spring, including Bill 64. (Ian Froese/CBC)

Later Wednesday, Education Minister Cliff Cullen was tight-lipped on whether a potential leadership race now on the horizon would affect Bill 64.

"Those are conversations that we'll continue to have. I'll just say today, you'll hear more about that in the near future," Cullen said.

Next steps depend on new leader: analyst

Political scientist Christopher Adams said that response suggests the province might be second-guessing its education overhaul.

That's especially true as opposition to Bill 64 grows among rural Manitobans — a significant part of the Progressive Conservatives' support base — with many worried their communities will suffer if it becomes law, he said.

Political scientist Christopher Adams is an adjunct professor in political studies at the University of Manitoba. (CBC News )

The big policy areas that middle-class voters are typically most concerned about are health care and education, he said.

"And if you're taking your lumps in the field of education or health care, you're going to take your lumps from voters when it comes to an election," Adams, an adjunct professor in political studies at the University of Manitoba, said over the phone Wednesday.

"So I think what Cliff Cullen is saying indicates that they're realizing that. And there's probably concern within the caucus about this among many of the MLAs who are probably worried as to whether they'll be able to hold on to their seat in the next election."

Adams said he doesn't foresee the province giving in to the Opposition's latest demand — but it will all depend on who takes the helm as the PC party's new leader.

"If that person is elected on a platform to take the party in a new direction, to do a reset button on its image and to reverse the decline in the polls, then I could see a different direction," he said.

"But I expect it's steady as she goes for the government."

Still, Manitoba is now in an unusual situation with a leader who has announced his pending resignation but still provided no road map for when that will happen. And the longer Pallister waits to announce those details, the more difficult it will be for him and the party, Adams said.

"The longer people are guessing as to when this would happen, the more difficult it will be for those vying to be the next leader," he said.

"I'd be surprised if in the next week we don't have a sense from him and from the party as to when the leadership race will get underway."

With files from Caitlyn Gowriluk and Ian Froese