The Progressive Conservatives, in holding the government's feet to the fire over the planned PST hike, can improve democracy in Manitoba by pressing for an earlier start to the legislature's spring session. Such a commitment from the NDP would lengthen the number of days MLAs would sit in the legislature and restore a measure of government accountability lost years ago under the Gary Doer administration.
As the schedule for the spring session is now set, MLAs would have a mere 45 days in the legislature, which grossly truncates their ability to scrutinize spending plans and examine the dozens of bills the NDP has tabled. Indeed, with the first two weeks of the session given exclusively to the budget speech, little more than 30 days remain for debating pending legislation, such as the controversial Bill 18.
The brevity of the legislative session was deliberate, the result of a sly manipulation by the NDP government some years ago. The house rules committee, which runs on consensus, agreed to an NDP proposal to set a firm date for the spring and fall sittings to rise, but did not also set a start date. Historically, sessions began early in the year, but under the NDP they have been pushed later and later. This year, the government called the legislature into session on April 15.
This dramatically cuts the days it is held to account in question period. It also cuts the time MLAs have to study, line by line, departmental spending as the estimates committee only sits when in session. The committee used to sit a total of 240 hours; that was reduced to 100 hours in 2006. The public accounts committee, which scrutinizes auditor general's reports, has been meeting eight times a year; other Canadian jurisdictions see their committee sitting 70 to 80 times. The Crown corporations committee will meet four times this year, allowing only the business of major Crowns to get a day each of scrutiny.
The Tories' filibuster in the House to protest the PST hike will force the NDP to resume sitting after a mandatory June 14 break to get its bills passed. The schedule now is open for negotiations. Tory Leader Brian Pallister and Liberal leader Jon Gerrard should use every opportunity to press the government to accept early, set start times to the spring session.