Despite appearances, the business of government works by schedule.
The NDP, Progressive Conservatives and Liberals have an agreement to when the house sits and rises. Generally, MLAs are in their seats from the first Monday in February to the Thursday of the second full week in June, except during spring break and from the first Monday after Labour Day to the Thursday of the first full week of December.
This year, June 17 is the date set for MLAs to begin their summer recess.
Basically, by agreement, June 17 gives the majority NDP government plenty of time to introduce new legislation and get the important ones passed. The opposition is given a couple of bones, like dates where they can debate the merits of private members’ bills and resolutions.
At least that’s how it’s supposed to work.
The PCs over the past few years have flexed their muscles a bit to rally against NDP legislation, like the ban on new hog barns two years ago.
Last December the PCs delayed the passing of Premier Greg Selinger’s first throne speech by using procedural delays. The reason for the delay was done more to embarrass Selinger and rookie NDP Government House Leader Bill Blaikie than anything else.
Now the PCs and the Liberals are at it again. This time it’s over Bill 31, The Budget Implementation and Tax Statutes Amendment Act (BITSA). The act changes Manitoba’s balanced budget law and allows the government to run deficits for the next four years as it recovers from the recent the economic downturn.
Bill 31 says Manitoba will go back to its old balanced-budget laws in 2014-15 or when it runs its next surplus, whichever comes first. It will then be required to balance its books within a four-year period beginning at that time.
The oppositions says one of Bill 31's most controversial provisions relates to cabinet pay. The old rules said cabinet ministers would have faced pay cuts of 40 per cent on consecutive years of failing to balance the books. Under the new rules, the pay cut stays at 20 per cent ($9,000) until the first year the books are balanced.
On Monday, PC house leader Gerald Hawranik stood up in the house on a matter of privilege. He proceeded to argue Bill 31 is so big the opposition doesn’t have enough time to debate it before the June 17 session deadline, never mind all the other bills on the table.
"Mr. Speaker, one must always realize that there are other bills that the government is– will expect us to debate and pass and vote on, and the public expects that," Hawranik told the house.
"They don't expect anything less. There's 39– there's likely going to be about 40 bills in this legislative session. There are still 39 bills left to consider, if there's 40 bills planned this session, and more than half of that time that we have available for debate will be taken by Bill 31, 10 days. And that will leave only nine days left to debate 39 bills. Thirty-nine bills, nine days; one bill, 10 days."
Next to chime in was Liberal MLA Kevin Lamoureux.
"So, yes, ultimately, the government can say, well, maybe we won't pass this one, we won't pass this one, because it'll appease maybe some members of the opposition or some of the government backbenchers," Lamoureux said. "But let there be no doubt that the government has found a backdoor in passing some its legislation through the BITSA legislation because it's mandated through the sessional order that it has to pass on June the 17."
What Hawranik and Lamoureux wanted from Speaker George Hickes was somewhat unclear in Monday’s sitting as it is in Hansard.
Neither demanded the session be extended past June 17, although they did say it’d be nice each party met to sort out "these outstanding issues."
Without a proper motion, Hickes dismissed Hawranik’s matter of privilege. Hawranik challenged it, and it ended up being defeated in a 33-20 recorded vote.
So what happens next?
The PCs and Liberals haven’t tipped their hand yet, but needless to say Monday’s escapade isn’t the end of it.
In the meantime, the NDP have offered—through the media at least—that they’re willing to extend the session.
"We are hopeful that the Tories will co-operate with us and move Bill 31 along as per normal process to end the session on June 17, however we are willing and prepared to sit longer if need be," a spokesperson told the Free Press Tuesday.
Will the Tories and Liberals take up that offer? Or is it all talk and no walk?