Manitoba

Opposition MLAs say Manitoba government dodging scrutiny by limiting question periods

The Manitoba government is being accused of avoiding scrutiny as it plunges the province into perhaps billions of dollars worth of debt. 

Pallister non-committal on future sitting dates, but says he's 'available in an appropriate manner'

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister arrives to his seat during a recent physically distanced question period. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

The Manitoba government is being accused of avoiding scrutiny as the province plunges into what could be billions of dollars worth of debt. 

Premier Brian Pallister's government has been holding one question period — the public venue for opposition MLAs to gather in the legislative chamber and question the government's performance — every week in May. 

Under normal conditions, before the COVID-19 pandemic derailed the usual legislative business, there would be four sittings this week alone.

But as the economy begins to open up, so should the limit on the number of question periods, NDP Leader Wab Kinew said.

"When you consider all the different ways that the government's actions are impacting Manitobans' lives — on public health orders, emergency measures, layoffs, job cuts — it seems to me that the government should recognize that our democracy is an essential service and agree to continue facing accountability through the legislature," Kinew said.

Pallister, however, was non-committal Wednesday on the scheduling of more sitting dates. 

Government's available: Pallister

"I understand the job of opposition parties is to do what the opposition is trying to do here now," he told reporters during a conference call.

"That being said, we're focused in the middle of a pandemic on the recovery of our province and we're also focused on being available in an appropriate manner, in a safe manner, here in the legislature and always to answer questions that the opposition and you in the media may have."

Pallister wouldn't budge during Wednesday's question period, the second last scheduled before the summer. Future sittings are expected to follow physical distancing protocols, which limit the number of MLAs in the chamber at a time.

"The premier is doing everything in his power to avoid accountability and transparency," NDP House leader Nahanni Fontaine said during question period.

Since mid-March, the government has implemented programs to aid people and businesses affected by the pandemic, but it is also cutting public-sector labour costs it considers to be non-essential. 

"We need more sitting days in this legislature to ensure that the premier explains why he's making these egregious and callous cuts in the midst of a global pandemic," Fontaine said.

Party House leaders are negotiating behind the scenes, but so far no additional sittings have been scheduled.

Under normal circumstances, the legislature would be meeting for four days a week in May, where opposition parties could grill the government routinely on pressing matters. The premier or his cabinet ministers would also be made available to answer reporters' questions.

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister holds a press conference in March regarding COVID-19 measures. The only media member present in the room is a single camera shared among broadcast networks. Reporters ask questions by phone to ensure physical distancing. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

Currently, the premier or government MLAs are only available through live-streamed press conferences. Reporters who teleconference in are limited to two questions each. 

Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said his party wants to make up the lost sitting dates in June and September. The chamber normally breaks for summer recess in early June. 

"We're way behind. We've lost seven weeks that we have to try to make up. There's question period, but there's 100 hours of estimates, where you get to ask the premier and ministers directly about what's going on," Lamont said.

"Everything the government's been doing has been behind the curtain." 

No recalls in some provinces

Question period in Manitoba has been held more frequently than in some other provinces during the pandemic.

The Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia legislatures haven't been recalled since mid-March. Ontario has had a few regular sitting dates, Quebec's assembly met once but also held some virtual committee hearings, and Alberta's MLAs sat several times in both April and May. 

During Wednesday's question period in Manitoba, opposition MLAs took the government to task for cost-cutting measures.

The NDP called on the government to vote on its resolution demanding a Public Utilities Board inquest into a plan to temporarily lay off 700 employees at Manitoba Hydro. 

In response, Pallister said his government is taking the pandemic seriously and is in no position to spend, borrow or tax its way out of the crisis.

Meanwhile, the Liberals demanded a "shred of evidence" the government's proposed workforce reductions and saving measures are necessary. 

After warning of workforce cuts as high as 30 per cent over a four-month period, the province settled earlier this month on cutting labour costs in the public sector by 2.2 per cent this year. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ian Froese

Reporter

Ian Froese is a reporter with CBC Manitoba. He has previously worked for newspapers in Brandon and Steinbach. Story idea? Email: ian.froese@cbc.ca.

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