The Progressive Conservative government refuses to say whether it will proclaim its controversial public-sector wage bill once it passes, raising speculation it will simply use Bill 28 as a club to get its way in contract talks with unions.
Premier Brian Pallister broke off a scrum with reporters Thursday when he was asked repeatedly whether the government planned to make the bill law.
On Friday, a spokeswoman for Pallister said the premier didn’t "have anything new to add" on the matter.
Under legislature rules, the government, with its healthy majority, is assured the bill will pass by the time the house rises for the summer on June 1.
The question being asked is whether it will be immediately proclaimed into law.
David Camfield, a professor of labour studies at the University of Manitoba, said the government could hold it in reserve as a club or threat.
"That’s a plausible interpretation. If they hold it in reserve, they avoid the messiness around a charter challenge," he said Friday.
In December 2015, the Nova Scotia government passed a bill that would have imposed a two-year wage freeze on that province’s 75,000 public servants. Liberal Premier Stephen McNeil promised not to bring it into force until it was needed. According to the province’s website, it has yet to be proclaimed into law.
Manitoba’s Bill 28 would freeze public-sector wages for two years, followed by a maximum 0.75 per cent increase in Year 3 and a one per cent hike in Year 4. Some 120,000 Manitoba workers are affected.
NDP MLA Andrew Swan said he’s "very concerned" by the government’s refusal to indicate whether the bill would immediately come into force.
"They may try to play the same kind of games (as) the Nova Scotia government: have the law passed in the legislature but not actually take the necessary steps in cabinet to make the bill effective and make it law, which might prevent a court challenge," he said.
"They’re trying to have it both ways. I don’t know why they can’t just come out and give a clear answer."
Manitoba unions have threatened a court challenge if the law is imposed on them.
If the legislation is not proclaimed, it will not come into effect. Unions could still bargain with public-sector employers for higher wages.
But Swan said a bill freezing wages, once passed in the legislature, is bound to affect the actions of government negotiators and could throw public-sector bargaining into disarray.
"Manitoba workers are entitled to know what the ground rules are, and Manitoba workers have said that if the government proclaims this law, it is going to be challenged in court," the former NDP justice minister said.
"If the government believes this is sustainable, they should put their money where their mouth is, proclaim the law and see what happens in court."
Manitoba Federation of Labour president Kevin Rebeck could not be reached for comment Friday.
Meanwhile, Camfield said the Pallister government likely feels confident about its position.
"It’s got a strong majority, and I don’t think it’s any secret that there is not a highly mobilized union movement in Manitoba at this point," he said.