Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

MLAs near setting most dismal record

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On Thursday, Aug. 29, Manitoba's MLAs will reach the 100-day mark of the current legislative session.

The legislature was to have adjourned for the summer, as is traditional, in June. The Progressive Conservative Opposition, in protest over NDP plans to raise the provincial sales tax to fund infrastructure, have used a plethora of procedural levers to stall the legislature.

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We are getting perilously close to setting a record here. The office of the clerk of the Legislative Assembly says since 1960, the legislature has sat more than 100 days four times; the longest session on record was in 1989-90 when MLAs sat for 153 days.

Are we on a record-breaking track now? Perhaps, as no one is quite sure when the legislature will adjourn.

The Opposition has been using the Manitoba legislature's very liberal rules to drag things out. In many provinces, governments have the power to limit procedural wrangling. In Manitoba, however, the opposition can introduce unlimited motions and force a vote on each and every one.

The NDP government has had few options to deal with the gridlock. It could prorogue the session, but that would wipe off all the legislation currently on the order paper. Given the budget bill is one of those affected, it's unlikely prorogation is in the cards.

The government could also invoke closure. However, NDP house leader Jennifer Howard said given the rules here in Manitoba, it would take up to four weeks to complete closure on any one piece of legislation. Given that, and the negative connotation whenever a government forces an end to debate, the NDP has elected to ride out the Tory procedural gesticulations.

As a result, Manitoba's legislature has entered another dimension, where MLAs show up every day to accomplish absolutely nothing.

As Free Press legislative reporter Bruce Owen noted last week, each day in the Manitoba legislature is identical to the one before. Procedural wrangling, angry finger- pointing, a few expletives muttered under and sometimes over their breath. Question period features the same tired list of questions and the same tired stock non-answers.

It didn't have to turn out this way. Many observers will blame the do-nothing state of affairs in the legislature on the procedural wrangling itself. But that is just one symptom of a larger and more serious problem.

Parliamentary democracy in this country has long abandoned any hope of engaging in meaningful debate, thoughtful consideration of legislation and compromise. Once in a while, a first minister will find himself or herself confronted with a minority mandate, and thus forced to engage the enemy on details of policy and legislation. In a majority mandate, however, there is no such pretence.

In the current standoff, for all of the so-called debate over the budget bill and legislation removing the need for a referendum on the tax hike, there has been no genuine exchange of ideas. Just angry, sometimes profane and sophomoric rhetoric.

The government has not offered to change any of its legislation and the Opposition has not proposed any meaningful compromises. Instead, the Tories fire rhetorical amendments at a government that is content to sit back and swat them down, one by one.

On the budget, the Tories proposed studies to gauge the impact of the PST hike on retailers, inflation, and seniors. Other amendments sought to rename the bill with inflammatory titles. Mostly, it has been semantic jousting, with absolutely no substance on either side.

It would have been interesting if the Tories had proposed real amendments, like offsetting tax credits. Sales taxes are considered by most economists to be regressive because they hit everyone the same, regardless of income level. Targeted tax credits are an effective tool for ensuring there is some fairness to this kind of tax increase.

The table was set for the Tories to propose a system of credits, thereby positioning themselves as the party of tax fairness. The NDP would not have liked being in the position of arguing against a measure to make the tax increase fairer for low-income citizens. Alas, the Tories did not feel obligated to make any real suggestions, and the government certainly felt no obligation to adopt any Opposition amendment. It is the epitome of a lose-lose equation.

For both the NDP and the PCs, it's all about hoping against hope. The Tories are hoping the elongated session somehow keeps a fire of protest burning over the PST hike. The NDP is hoping the Tories make themselves look foolish by keeping the legislature in session without actually accomplishing anything.

The record for longest session is now within reach. Unfortunately, even though our MLAs are sitting longer, they are accomplishing less. It is not a record we want to achieve.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 27, 2013 A3

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