March 29, 2017

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Formidable leader or foolish fighter? Pallister declares war on left

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>The Manitoba government tabled eight bills guaranteed to drive Premier Brian Pallister's enemies into a tizzy.</p></p>

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The Manitoba government tabled eight bills guaranteed to drive Premier Brian Pallister's enemies into a tizzy.

It may be known for some time as the great "bill blitz" of 2017.

Eight government bills tabled on a single day, the last on which legislation could be introduced and still have a chance of passing by June 1, which the scheduled conclusion of the current sitting. The bills dealt with a wide range of policy issues, but were bound by what appeared to be a single political purpose: driving Premier Brian Pallister's sworn enemies into a tizzy.

It became achingly clear Monday the Pallister government is intent on impaling a goodly number of sacred cows of the centre-left of Manitoba's political spectrum. Laws that will drive up post-secondary tuition rates, freeze public-sector wages, allow for larger individual political donations, tighter identification requirements for voters, and force the merger of health-care bargaining units.

For the purely hipster observer, it was a mixed bag. There was a law to deal with people driving while under the influence of marijuana, and enabling legislation to allow municipalities to welcome ride-sharing services such as Uber if they so wish. We'll call that a wash.

Still, combined with a mini bill blitz last week — which saw the repeal of environmental laws governing inspection of water systems and loosening of controls on the hog industry — and you have an open declaration of war on anyone who has even a modicum of sympathy with the former NDP government.

For the most part, the legislation tabled Monday had more holes than Pembina Highway on an unseasonably warm March day. Many of the bills tabled this week are confusing in their intent.

The Advanced Education Administration Amendment Act will, when proclaimed, allow universities and colleges to increase tuition annually by five per cent plus the cost of living. The intent of the law is obvious: allow schools to raise more money from students to relieve the pressure on annual government grants. Politically, the gross majority of students don't vote Progressive Conservative, so there is little downside there.

Curiously, the law includes an assurance that despite the increases, Manitoba will continue to have the lowest tuition in Western Canada and provisions that allow the province to claw back grants to universities and colleges that allow tuition to rise above that benchmark.

Questions abound. Why is it important to have the lowest tuition in Western Canada? Will this be calculated on a program-by-program basis, or as an average of all program tuition? Why allow post-secondary institutions the power to raise tuition by five per cent plus inflation and then threaten them with a clawback?

With many of these bills, it appears Premier Brian Pallister is indiscriminantly picking fights that, quite frankly, he need not have picked. This includes provisions to allow for higher individual political donations and new but unspecified identification requirements for voters. Other than Pallister's personal distaste for per-vote subsidies, it would be tough to find anyone complaining about donation limits or voter identification. The law will, however, make it possible for a political party to amass a war chest with much less work, and contact with far fewer individual donors.

Then there is the Public Services Sustainability Act (PSSA), a piece of legislation that is so fraught with legal peril it's remarkable the Pallister government introduced it at all.

The proposed law calls for an automatic two-year wage freeze for any public-sector group following expiry of a contract, or which are currently without a contract. After that, wage increases would be limited to 0.75 and 1.0 per cent. The bill expands the definition of public-sector employee to include those working for Crown agencies, school divisions, health organizations and other publicly funded bodies. In total, it could ultimately impact the paycheques of 120,000 Manitobans.

It's a risky strategy if recent political and legal precedents are considered. Legislative efforts to impose conditions normally bargained in contracts have been struck down in British Columbia by the Supreme Court of Canada, and stalled out in Nova Scotia largely in response to the B.C. decision.

In the latter example, Nova Scotia introduced legislation to force wage controls on its public-sector employees but chose not to proclaim it in the wake of the B.C. court decision. However, in late February, the province passed a law imposing a settlement on teachers. This came only after three separate interim agreements reached between the government and union negotiators were rejected by union members.

The federal Conservative government was successful in introducing wage-restraint legislation in the late 2000s that survived two court challenges but was ultimately not reviewed by the Supreme Court.

Why would Pallister decide to introduce legislation that, at best, has a 50-50 chance of surviving a court challenge that the Manitoba Federation of Labour has already said will be coming? The most flattering theory would be that Pallister is looking for a more efficient way of capping public-sector wages without having to go through individual contract negotiations.

The bill blitz reveals a lot about Pallister the politician. For those who disagree with him, he is proving to be a formidable, even intimidating opponent, who is unflinchingly fearless about dropping the gloves.

Pallister is also reminding us he has a reckless side. He has shown no reluctance to provoke constituencies that can prove troublesome come election time. Pallister benefitted in 2016 from a New Democratic Party that could no longer inspire even its most committed members. The premier is threatening to give many of those former NDP supporters a reason to get back on the orange bandwagon.

Political leaders who are fearless about starting fights can be portrayed in one of two ways: brave or foolish. It will not take long before Pallister reveals which term best describes him.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Read more by Dan Lett.

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