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Will the legislature get back to work?

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Perhaps someone was able to find a moral victory in all of the procedural wrangling. Or perhaps it was the increasingly warm weather. Either way, the impasse at the legislature appears to possibly, finally, be at an end.

Late Thursday, a deal was struck between the NDP government, the Progressive Conservatives and Liberal Leader Jon Gerrard to move ahead with hearings on Bill 20 starting June 27.

Bill 20 allows for an increase to the PST to eight per cent without having to hold a referendum, and it has been the object of Tory contempt since it was introduced. The deal to allow the bill to pass second reading also means it's possible the Tories will stop the petition readings, needless votes and the mind-numbing filibustering that brought the legislature to a halt.

You might wonder, is this is a victory for the Tories, the NDP or for the journalists who cover the legislature daily and were living in terror that the delays would push the final votes on Bill 20 and other important pieces of legislation well into cottage season? It depends on your perspective.

For the Tories, there is a moral victory. They were never going to stop the majority NDP government from eventually passing all of its legislation, but as they proved during the past couple of weeks, they can make it difficult...

For the Tories, there is a moral victory. They were never going to stop the majority NDP government from eventually passing all of its legislation, but as they proved during the past couple of weeks, they can make it difficult and, thanks to the warm weather, as uncomfortable as possible.

Late June is that time of the year when our glorious legislative building becomes the province's largest convection oven. Denied air conditioning in all but a precious few rooms (the premier's office, the legislative chamber itself and the basement news-conference theatre), this building gets very sticky, very quickly once outside temperatures get into the mid-20s.

For the NDP, the deal reached Thursday is not a victory per se, but it does eliminate the possibility of a horrible self-inflicted wound. There was risk for the NDP if they had not been able to pass Bill 20 in time for July 1, the date on which the higher PST was to take effect. If there is anything worse than raising taxes, it is doing it without all your legislative ducks in a row. Passage by July 1 is not a certainty, but it is a possibility.

There was also peril if the province had been forced to invoke closure on debate, a heavy-handed tool wielded by majority governments that can come back to haunt them come election time.

The NDP has so far not been required to defer any of the major pieces of legislation caught up in the Bill 20 scrap. The delays also ensnared Bill 18 (anti-bullying measures) and Bill 33 (amalgamation of smaller municipalities). It is not unheard of for a government to pull contentious legislation off the order paper to buy an end to procedural delays. So far, the NDP has avoided that indignity.

At this point, it appears the journalists who work daily out of the legislative buildings -- especially those with cottages -- are the big winners.

With so little accomplished, why would the Tories have pushed so hard? The Tories were in a no-lose situation. Core supporters, and others who object to the NDP government's plans to raise the PST without the bother of a referendum, no doubt loved the image of the underdog Opposition throwing up procedural hurdles to slow down the evil majority government.

Tory Leader Brian Pallister acknowledged there was a best-before date on that strategy and at some point the Tories would have run the risk of becoming not only the authors of the ire, but the cause of it as well. "There is a risk/reward factor here," Pallister said Thursday. "But there's no way for us around that. We're going to stick around long enough to do our jobs."

Long enough to perhaps make their point, but beyond that, not too long that it begins to take a toll on his own caucus. Tory MLAs do not want to be stuck in the legislature all summer, a time for valuable constituency work.

For now, the Tories are allowing Bill 20 to go ahead. A Tory source said there is no explicit commitment to allow the other contentious legislation to proceed. Many Tories do not like the anti-bullying law, particularly provisions that require schools to accommodate gay-straight alliances. And the bill to force amalgamation of smaller municipalities could be a talker in rural ridings. Certainly, there is fodder there if the Tories want to continue slowing things down.

The legislature's long hot spring, which threatened to be a long hot summer could be over. Or, it could just be starting in earnest.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 21, 2013 A7

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