Manitoba

Manitoba government's tabling of 19 'mystery' bills called 'unprecedented, undemocratic'

Manitoba's government is limiting debate over 19 new bills by not making any text available for opposition parties or the public to review, say two separate groups trying to expose it and prevent it from happening.

Move 'undermines the intent of our political system and sets a dangerous precedent,' group says

The Progressive Conservative government's move to keep the 19 bills under a shroud is retaliation against the NDP for holding up the presentation of the budget in spring 2020, says Paul Thomas, professor emeritus of political studies at the University of Manitoba. (Michael Fazio/CBC)

Manitoba's government is limiting debate over 19 new bills by not making any text available for opposition parties or the public to review, say two separate groups trying to expose it and prevent it from happening.

Aside from the titles of the bills — which suggest they focus on significant topics such as the education system, health-care system and child-care programs — the public has no idea what's in them, months after they were tabled in the legislature, says Paul Thomas, professor emeritus of political studies at the University of Manitoba.

"This isn't normal practice. In Ottawa, when a bill is presented, hours later it's printed in full and circulated," said Thomas, one of the signatories to a letter sent to the province's three main political parties and signed by several prominent Manitobans, including former provincial and federal parliamentarians.

"No other provinces are doing this."

The letter also bears the names of former MPs from three different parties — Conservative Shelly Glover, Liberal Lloyd Axworthy and New Democrat Bill Blaikie, among others.

Current rules of the legislature do not expressly forbid bills from being introduced in this way, which is shocking and needs to be changed, says another open letter, this one from the grassroots group Communities Not Cuts Manitoba.

"This is unprecedented, undemocratic, undermines the intent of our political system and sets a dangerous precedent for future governments," the letter states.

The process severely limits the ability of opposition MLAs and the public to engage with the content of the bills before they move from first reading to the next stage of the legislative process, the letter says.

The 19 bills are set to go to second reading later this month.

"They've created a real and unnecessary fear amongst community stakeholders who will be directly impacted by this mystery legislation," said Mike Moroz, a spokesperson for Communities Not Cuts.

"Manitobans have a right to be able to see and comment on the work of their government. How can we possibly trust a government that hides its agenda in this way?"

Childish bickering has led to the current behaviour and it's time to stop, Thomas said.

"The atmosphere in the legislature, in my opinion, has deteriorated over recent years. It's become too hyper-partisan [with] too many personality clashes and too many games being played," he said.

The Progressive Conservative government's move to keep the 19 bills under a shroud is retaliation against the NDP for holding up the presentation of the budget in the spring of 2020, Thomas said.

"We can't have this gamesmanship going on. It undermines the process," he said. "We need to have vigorous debate, but we need also to have informed debate."

The letter signed by Thomas says democracy is fragile, as demonstrated recently south of the border, and it's time for the politicians to stop trying to score points and to do what's best for Manitobans.

Pallister blames NDP, vice versa

When asked Tuesday about the secrecy behind the bills, Premier Brian Pallister laid the blame on the NDP.

He said the NDP's "blockade" during the budget process last spring caused a backlog that is being seen now.

He also said his party asked the NDP and Liberals for unanimous consent in December, so the bills could be distributed over the winter and everyone could read through them, but the request was refused.

"We're doing our best to catch up," Pallister said, adding he is calling the legislature back as of Wednesday to have more time to deal with the bills. 

"We're ready to play nice, but we're also the elected government of Manitoba, so I would encourage the Opposition not to try to pretend that they are the government. They are not."

NDP Leader Wab Kinew was asked Tuesday if he plans to engage in more delay tactics like those seen last spring.

"I'm not going to tell Mr. Pallister what our game plan is for the coming sitting," Kinew said.

He was then asked if he sees any issues with the tenor and tactics in recent legislative sessions. Kinew said the legislature has been a partisan environment for well over 100 years, "and this is the first time a government has ever withheld the text of their legislative agenda.

"So, it's really Mr. Pallister and the PCs who are standing in the way of transparency, here."

'A matter of principle'

The Communities Not Cuts letter is demands the bills be reintroduced with full text in the upcoming legislative sitting.

"We are also pushing our government to modify and clarify the legislative policies to prevent this from happening again and to ensure transparency in future legislative bills," says the letter, which is available online and can be sent as is, or edited and personalized.

Once sent, it automatically goes to all 57 Manitoba MLAs in the legislature.

"This isn't a partisan issue, it's a matter of principle," Moroz said.

The letter signed by Thomas calls on the government to make the 19 bills publicly availability no later than March 4 and to not proceed to second reading until after at least 14 legislative sitting days.

The average Manitoban should be concerned about the 19 bills because "they will have an impact on their lives," Thomas told CBC News.

"They should contact their MLA. They should write to the party leaders. They should post messages on social media.

"The party leaders and their House leaders have to be encouraged to get together in the room and find a deal and then commit to ongoing reform of the rules so this doesn't happen again."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Darren Bernhardt

Reporter/Editor

Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, first at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories and features. Story idea? Email: darren.bernhardt@cbc.ca

With files from Jessica Piche

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