Legislature ready to rumble as parties fight for right to govern

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Raucous debate, big-ticket spending promises, finger-pointing, and a few swan songs are expected as Manitoba lawmakers return to Broadway today for a final, high stakes sitting of the legislative assembly before the fall election.

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Raucous debate, big-ticket spending promises, finger-pointing, and a few swan songs are expected as Manitoba lawmakers return to Broadway today for a final, high stakes sitting of the legislative assembly before the fall election.

Over the 45-day spring sitting, Premier Heather Stefanson must convince voters the Tories can pull the health-care system back from the brink in what will be the “most important legislative session” in the Progressive Conservative government’s tenure, Brandon University political studies professor Kelly Saunders said.

“This is their big shot to plead their case, to convince Manitobans, to maybe win Manitobans back on side,” she said. “The battle lines are going to be drawn and this is going to be quite a tempestuous session for sure.”

The Tories first major pitch to Manitobans will be the budget, scheduled to be released March 7.

“It looks like they’re banking on a budget with lots of big spending announcements and banking on that to carve out their path to victory, if there is one for them moving forward,” Saunders said.

“It certainly doesn’t seem to be much on the legislative side.”

On Tuesday, Government house leader Kelvin Goertzen said the session will primarily focus on the budget.

Goertzen said the government wants to see the budget passed before the house breaks for the summer on June 1 and time has been allocated accordingly for budget debate, associated legislation and committee hearings.

“We want people to focus on what people are going to see in the budget on March 7,” Goertzen said.

“I think people will see many things that they like and it will deal with a lot issues that people have concerns about, not the least of which is affordability.”

Goertzen said the budget is being introduced at one of the earliest points in the calendar year that he can recall in his nearly two decades at the legislature.

“That will give the clear path to get the budget hopefully passed this spring,” he said.

Goertzen said he expects the Budget Implementation and Tax Statutes Act — which puts the Tories’ spending plan into law — to be introduced early and to reflect the budget in terms of size and scope. The Tories have signalled a significant loosening of the provincial purse strings is on deck, with pre-budget spending announcements to support municipalities, address homelessness and improve home care made in the past week.

“It will be significant,” he said.

At least 30 government bills are expected to be tabled in this sitting and a number will deal with justice issues, said Goertzen.

Legislation to enable a security program for Winnipeg Transit, as proposed by Winnipeg Mayor Scott Gillingham, and to address law enforcement concerns raised by rural and northern municipalities will be up for debate, said Goertzen, who is also justice minister.

He declined to comment further on the government’s legislative agenda and reiterated the budget will be a major focus for lawmakers.

Université de Saint Boniface political science professor emeritus Raymond Hébert said the Tories will want to avoid controversial bills and will likely stick to legislation that appeases both their rural base and voters in seat-rich Winnipeg.

“The challenge for Tories always is to paper over those divisions,” Hébert said. “The goal is to convince Manitobans that they’re listening to Manitobans and Manitobans of course have been crystal clear that they want improved services in practically every area.”

Saunders and Hébert expect a tense sitting as the Progressive Conservatives and the New Democrats look to establish themselves as the best party to form government on Oct. 3.

“It’s going to be an exceptionally raucous session. There will be very little rational debate, probably less than we usually see, and a lot of shouting and screaming, and so on,” Hébert said.

The Tories return to the chamber with a refreshed roster of cabinet ministers following a shuffle in January and a reorganization of Stefanson’s inner circle. Obby Khan, Kevin Klein, James Teitsma and Janice Morley-Lecomte will rise in question period for the first time as ministers.

However, with roughly a third of the PC caucus — including former high-profile cabinet ministers — not seeking re-election, the Tories have lost a considerable amount of bench strength. Notably, former Winkler-Morden MLA and finance minister Cameron Friesen will be absent from the chamber after resigning his seat on Feb. 3.

Last week, NDP Leader Wab Kinew promoted a handful of Winnipeg MLAs to high-profile positions in his shadow cabinet, saying the shuffle shows Manitobans have a “real alternative” for government. Kinew said his caucus plans to focus on health care, affordability, schools, seniors care and jobs.

Saunders said the NDP’s challenge will be to show it is ready to take on governing while continuing to chip away at the Progressive Conservatives’ record on health care and avoid any controversy or missteps.

“They need to show that they truly are a government in waiting, that they have the experience, that they have the presence of mind and statesmanship, that they are ready to step in and begin governing on day one,” she said.

The Opposition must also be cautious not to come off as arrogant during the session as it continues to lead in opinion polls, Hébert said.

“They could lose support pretty fast and that’s a major danger for that party,” he said.

danielle.dasilva@freepress.mb.ca

Danielle Da Silva

Danielle Da Silva
Reporter

Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.

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