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Summer session: $12,500 a day

Politicians' conduct degenerates as cost to taxpayers balloons

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Day 73 of Manitoba's prolonged legislative sitting featured Opposition questions on Bipole III and the PST increase -- and a dose of salty language from the Progressive Conservative leader, which he later withdrew.

Keeping the legislature operating during the summer costs about $12,500 a day.

The session was scheduled to wrap up June 13, with the NDP passing its bills into law. But because of the Conservative party's objection to the one-percentage-point increase in the PST and other NDP bills, the house went into an emergency sitting June 17. The cost of the emergency sitting has so far reached $462,500. The money pays for chamber staff, such as the sergeant-at-arm, pages and ushers, and maintaining the daily Hansard transcription service.

PC house leader Kelvin Goertzen said the extended sitting, while it comes at a price, is nowhere near the number of days MLAs sat in earlier decades.

From 1991 to 2000, legislators were in the house an average of 82 days a year. Since 2005, they've sat an average of only 61 days.

"I've personally have never had anybody in my time as MLA say to me that we sit too often as a legislature," Goertzen said. "I've often heard the opposite, that the legislature should be in session more often so that there is more accountability."

The session started Nov. 19 with the Selinger government's throne speech. The spring sitting started April 16 with the government's budget and the announcement the NDP would hike the PST to eight per cent on July 1, without holding a public referendum. The requirement for the referendum for a major tax increase was brought in by the PC government of Gary Filmon.

It's unknown when the house might rise, although some have suggested it could come in late September.

Goertzen said he and NDP house leader Jennifer Howard have been in talks to resolve the stalemate.

"Obviously it hasn't resulted in an agreement at this point, but those discussions will continue," he said. "They could continue for months. We might be discussing it at Christmas."

The session feels like the 1993 movie Groundhog Day in which the same day repeats itself over and over again. Opposition petitions and questions on subjects such as the route of Manitoba Hydro's Bipole III transmission line and the 2011 flood are recycled again and again, as are the NDP's answers.

Wednesday's highlight involved Speaker Daryl Reid, whose ongoing effort to restore house decorum, disciplining Tory Leader Brian Pallister for using the words "hell" and "asinine" in his exchange with Premier Greg Selinger over flood protection and the PST increase.

"The words the honourable member just used a few moments ago, I think, are beneath the dignity of this house," Reid said. "So I'm asking for him to please, please, in keeping with the decorum of this assembly, pick and choose your words very carefully and to not to inflame the situation of this house."

Pallister withdrew the words, but then muttered something that was not recorded.

The NDP claims the word was "bullshit" in response to Reid's request to withdraw the word "asinine."

The NDP's Howard was quick on her feet. "I listened very carefully to your rulings and your direction to the house on parliamentary language and then I heard the leader of the opposition say a very unfortunate word that is decidedly unparliamentary that I won't repeat," Howard told Reid.

"I believe that he was reflecting on your ruling that you just made," she said.

His words are "inappropriate and against the rules of this house," she added.

Reid said he would review Hansard to see if it recorded Pallister. (It did not.)

A spokesman for Pallister said Howard and other NDP MLAs heard Pallister say "Beauchesne."

He was telling his colleagues the word "asinine" isn't forbidden under Beauchesne's Parliamentary Rules and Forms, the rules of order used in Canada, the spokesman said.

A short time later, Pallister excused himself from the house to attend his party's golf tournament.

Paul Thomas, professor emeritus of political studies at the University of Manitoba, said this and other recent incidents in the house reflect an assembly dominated by hyper-partisanship.

"Manitobans are fed up with excessive partisanship and the naming, blaming and shaming which it produces," Thomas said. "They would like to see more substance and co-operation among the parties to identify actions which serve the public interest. They would like to see more emphasis on results and improvement."

Thomas said the "mainly unenlightening and uninspiring session" should end so MLAs can clean up their act.

Having the legislature sit through the summer has cost nearly half a million dollars. Is that the cost of democracy — a real steal compared to not having democracy? Or should taxpayers be concerned about the expense? Join the conversation in the comments below.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 22, 2013 A3


Updated on Thursday, August 22, 2013 at 6:33 AM CDT: Replaces photo, adds question for discussion

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