BRANDON -- With so much public attention focused on Bill 20 (the Selinger government's legislation to increase the PST and override the referendum law), Bill 33 (which forces the amalgamation of municipalities) and Bill 18 (the anti-bullying legislation), it is not surprising the public is largely unaware of much of the other legislation introduced by our NDP government during the current session.
There are bills that amend the Endangered Species Act, replace the Public Trustee Act, privatize property registration and allow hospitals to grant admitting privileges to nurse practitioners and midwives.
Then there's Bill 38, the Provincial Offences Act and Municipal By-Law Enforcement Act, which completely replaces the Summary Convictions Act.
Sec. 3 of that proposed law says "a person who contravenes an enactment by doing an act that it forbids... commits an offence against the enactment," while Sec. 4 says "unless otherwise specifically provided under an Act, a person who is convicted of an offence is liable to a fine of not more than $5,000."
Think about that for a moment. The Selinger government is proposing a law that restates that Manitobans are liable to prosecution and huge fines for violating provincial laws when, at this very moment, the government is violating two provincial laws by raising the PST rate without first holding a province-wide referendum. They are either blind to the irony or indifferent to the hypocrisy.
Although Team Selinger is unconcerned about the prospect of breaking the law -- it intends to grant itself retroactive immunity through the passage of Bill 20 -- it should concern the thousands of Manitoba merchants, who are not protected by that legislation.
Sec. 2(1) of the Retail Sales Tax Act currently sets the sales-tax rate at seven per cent, while Sec. 9(2) requires retailers to collect that tax percentage from consumers and remit it to the province. Until Bill 20 is passed, retailers have no legal authority to collect the eight per cent sales tax they are now collecting from their customers.
At the Bill 20 public hearings last week, accountant Julie Bubnick told MLAs the government was forcing her to break the law by ordering her to collect the eight per cent PST even though Bill 20 has not been passed.
"I am angry, I am insulted and I am upset," she told MLAs. "I am a tax collector for what I consider to be an illegal tax."
Bubnick's concerns are echoed by many merchants.
A prominent Brandon retailer told me: "This is a real cluster (expletive), as far as I'm concerned.
"It doesn't seem right or legal."
The Selinger government says concerns about the legality of the PST increase are overblown. It argues that it is common practice throughout Canada for governments, federal and provincial, to impose taxation changes weeks or even months before the enabling legislation is passed into law.
While the argument is technically correct, it ignores two key facts. First, a Manitoba law specifically prohibits a PST increase without a referendum, and that law is currently in force. Even worse, it is currently illegal to violate a provincial law and it will still be illegal after the passage of Bill 38.
Selinger has apparently learned nothing from the drubbing his government received in its litigation against the Manitoba Jockey Club a few weeks ago, when Mr. Justice Dewar wrote: "Government ministers generally do not impose taxes or spend money unless they are authorized to do so... (T)he minister must act in accordance with the law as it now stands."
We live in a nation and province founded on the rule of law, and the fundamental principle is that no citizen is above the law. Of equal importance is society's expectation that those who enact and enforce the laws must comply with them.
A government that is indifferent to that expectation -- that tells citizens to "do as we say, not as we do" -- forfeits its moral authority to govern. Indeed, how can the Selinger government credibly demand its citizens comply with laws when it refuses to do the same?
Deveryn Ross is a political commentator living in Brandon.