Opinion

When things aren’t going a government’s way, the first rule of politics is to “pause and re-evaluate” whatever is irking the public.

When things aren’t going a government’s way, the first rule of politics is to "pause and re-evaluate" whatever is irking the public.

Delaying the implementation of a controversial plan usually gives some breathing room, and creates the appearance politicians are "listening to the people."

Premier Brian Pallister. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Premier Brian Pallister. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

That will likely be the fate of the Progressive Conservative government’s Bill 64, proposed legislation that makes sweeping changes to the Manitoba public school system, including erasing its 36 English-speaking divisions and redrawing the lines into 15 new regions. (The francophone school structure remains as is.)

Two things have to happen for the pause and re-evaluation to occur: Premier Brian Pallister has to retire, and the PC party has to pick a new leader who is more in tune with the hearts and minds of Manitoba voters.

The former will likely occur in the coming months. It would be surprising if Pallister spent another winter in Manitoba (he hates the Prairie cold).

The reason he called an early election in 2019 was almost certainly so he could retire after an abbreviated two terms in office. While COVID-19 has thrown a wrench into his retirement plans, if the pandemic winds down by fall as expected, the premier will have a favourable exit opportunity by year's end.

Retirement planning may not be the only thing influencing the premier. As the PC party continues to plummet in public opinion polls (a decline widely believed to be tied to Pallister’s abrasive and autocratic governing style), the whisper campaign within Tory ranks for him to move on is expected to intensify over the summer. Nobody likes to get pushed out.

So where would that leave Bill 64, the proposed Education Modernization Act? The bill was one of five designated by the Opposition to be put over until the fall. It still has to pass second reading in October, and is expected to go to public hearings mid-month. A near-record 400 people have signed up to speak to the bill.

While Bill 64 is expected to pass during the fall session, it doesn’t mean it becomes law right away.

Retirement planning may not be the only thing influencing the premier. As the PC party continues to plummet in public opinion polls (a decline widely believed to be tied to Pallister’s abrasive and autocratic governing style), the whisper campaign within Tory ranks for him to move on is expected to intensify over the summer.

Some bills are proclaimed into law upon royal assent (which usually occurs at the end of a session). Bill 64 comes into force "on a day fixed by proclamation."

That means some or all of it has to be proclaimed by the minister of education to become law; the timing is up to cabinet. That can take months or years and often includes the drawing up of regulations. Sometimes, large acts such as this are proclaimed in stages.

Education Minister Cliff Cullen has said government plans to enact at least part of the legislation by July 1, 2022, including collapsing school boards and replacing them with a provincial authority, but that’s not written in stone.

If Pallister is gone by then, a more thoughtful cabinet could delay implementation.

A new leader could take an entirely different tack, including keeping some aspects of the bill and modifying others (such as reducing the number of school boards but not eliminating them altogether).

The last thing the PC party needs going into an expected 2023 election is Bill 64 hanging around its neck, at least in its current form. It’s controversial, there are a lot of unanswered questions, and it’s not even going over well in some parts of Tory-rich southern Manitoba.

There’s no upside for the party to push it through in 2022. With Pallister gone, the Tories wouldn't have to.

Bill 64 is a Brian Pallister invention. It’s not based on sound education research or forward-thinking policy objectives. It’s Pallister wanting to overhaul a system the way he thinks it should be done. He knows better than everyone else, just ask him.

There’s little doubt the public school system needs change. Whether Bill 64 is the right choice is debatable.

There are legitimate arguments in favour of having some elected representation to govern schools to reflect the priorities of Manitobans in different regions of the province. My guess is a new PC party leader would be more in tune with those voices.

tom.brodbeck@freepress.mb.ca

Tom Brodbeck

Tom Brodbeck
Columnist

Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.

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