Six prominent Manitobans from across the political spectrum have urged the province’s three party leaders to stop their partisan wrangling and respect the right of Manitobans to be informed about government legislation.

Six prominent Manitobans from across the political spectrum have urged the province’s three party leaders to stop their partisan wrangling and respect the right of Manitobans to be informed about government legislation.

The full-page letter published in the Winnipeg Free Press on March 2.

The full-page letter published in the Winnipeg Free Press on March 2.

In a letter, the group calls it "unprecedented" that 19 bills have received first reading in the house, but their contents haven’t been made public.

"We are writing today to express our serious concerns regarding significant departures from legislative norms and best practices related to the parliamentary and the wider democratic process," says the letter.

It is signed by former Conservative MP Shelly Glover, former Liberal cabinet minister Lloyd Axworthy, former NDP MPs Bill Blaikie and Judy Wasylycia-Leis, former Manitoba Court of Appeal justice Charles Huband and Paul Thomas, professor emeritus of political studies at the University of Manitoba.

The tabling of so many bills without text is unprecedented in Manitoba history, in the legislatures of all other Canadian jurisdictions, and in the established norms in every international jurisdiction that responded to enquiries by the Manitoba Legislative Library, says the letter.

Read the letter

Dear Premier Pallister and Messrs. Kinew and Lamont:

We are writing today to express our serious concerns regarding significant departures from legislative norms and best practices related to the parliamentary and the wider democratic process...

Dear Premier Pallister and Messrs. Kinew and Lamont:

We are writing today to express our serious concerns regarding significant departures from legislative norms and best practices related to the parliamentary and the wider democratic process.

Responsive and responsible government is vitally important to all Manitobans. An effective legislative process that works in the public interest is critical to this. The process needs to ensure the timely consideration of government business while providing the opposition, stakeholder groups and the public with a meaningful opportunity to understand, provide feedback on and to challenge government bills.

Regrettably, procedural disputes during the last session and now in this current one have seriously disrupted the legislative process. These disputes have most recently escalated to the government’s tabling and the passage through first reading of 19 bills with titles alone and no accompanying text that describes the purposes and content of proposed legislation. The texts for these bills, many that look to be broad in their scope and consequential in their impacts within society, are still not publicly available now, four months later.

This is unacceptable. It denies MLAs, stakeholders and the general public the right to the timely review of proposed legislation. Moreover, the tabling of so many bills without text is unprecedented in Manitoba history, in the legislatures of all other Canadian jurisdictions, and in the established norms in every international jurisdiction that responded to enquiries by the Manitoba Legislative Library.

As we have witnessed recently south of the border, democracy is fragile. We all need to work to honour and protect it. It is time for the leaders and the elected members of all parties in Manitoba to step back from partisan wrangling, to remember who they serve and to respect the right of all Manitobans to be informed of and to participate in the legislative process.

Accordingly, we respectfully ask that the government and both of the opposition parties represented in the Manitoba Legislature to commit to:

• Ensuring the public availability of the text of the 19 government bills by no later than March 4, 2021;

• Not proceeding to 2nd Reading of these bills until at least 14 sitting days after the texts have been made publicly available; and

• Working together in an open, public and transparent process to amend the rules of the house before the next session to better reflect and respect due process, as well as to promote more meaningful public participation in the legislative process.

Sincerely,

Lloyd Axworthy, former federal cabinet minister and Liberal MLA,
Bill Blaikie, former NDP MP and MLA,
Shelly Glover, former federal Tory cabinet minister,
Charles R. Huband, former leader of provincial Liberal Party, and former Court of Appeal Justice,
Paul G. Thomas, professor emeritus of political studies at the University of Manitoba,
Judy Wasylycia-Leis, former NDP MP and Manitoba cabinet minister

Many of the bills "look to be broad in their scope and consequential in their impacts within society, are still not publicly available now four months later," the letter says.

"As we have witnessed recently south of the border, democracy is fragile. We all need to work to honour and protect it. It is time for the leaders and the elected members of all parties in Manitoba to step back from partisan wrangling, to remember who they serve and to respect the right of all Manitobans to be informed of and to participate in the legislative process."

Manitoba’s parties are so polarized they are in permanent campaign mode, Thomas said Monday when asked to comment on the letter.

As a result, the rules of the legislature "have become tactical weapons."

The rules are being used by the opposition to delay progress on the government’s agenda and by the government to pre-empt or to overcome resistance from the opposition, the veteran observer of Manitoba politics and Free Press op-ed contributor said.

"Both parties rely on loopholes in the rules or bend the rules to gain short-term tactical advantage."

After the NDP delayed the presentation of government’s budget last spring, by raising multiple points of privilege, the conflict over the rules escalated and the PCs retaliated by introducing a batch of bills in the fall session, but refused to provide their texts, said Thomas.

Kept under wraps

Click to Expand

A sample of the 19 bills that have been introduced and received first reading without their text being made public:

Bill 47: The Early Learning and Child Care Act

Bill 48: The Fiscal Responsibility and Taxpayer Protection Act

Bill 57: The Protection of Critical Infrastructure Act, which is to “protect critical infrastructure” such as highways and railways from blockades that put “public safety and the economy” at risk.

Bill 59: Police Services Amendment Act, which aims to enhance “transparency and accountability in policing” and strengthen the powers of the police watchdog (Independent Investigation Unit of Manitoba).

Bill 64: The Education Modernization Act

The house is set to resume sitting Wednesday, and there remain 19 pieces of legislation with just a title, but no text explaining what they are, and no time for the public to consider them, provide feedback or challenge them, the letter writers say.

"If you don’t ensure the right of individuals to voice concerns, it’s not healthy in a democracy," Thomas said.

The letter writers don’t take sides, but offer a constructive solution.

They are particularly concerned about protecting the right of the public, especially organizations, advocacy groups and those most directly affected by proposed legislation, said Thomas. They need to see a bill at the earliest possible opportunity so they can prepare informed commentaries.

The letter asks the Tory government and both opposition parties to ensure the text of the 19 government bills is made available to the public no later than Thursday. It asks that second reading of the bills does not occur until at least 14 sitting days after the texts have been made publicly available, which is April 6 according to the sessional calendar.

Signatories to the letter include six prominent Manitobans from across the political spectrum.

Signatories to the letter include six prominent Manitobans from across the political spectrum.

After second reading, bills are considered by legislature committees, where public input and submissions are made. "It’s a celebrated tradition," said Thomas. "But it only works well if bills are in circulation long enough."

In November, government house leader Kelvin Goertzen told reporters the rules require that the text of bills be made available the day before they receive second reading.

Thomas said the letter writers don’t just want the rules to change, they want the culture that turned the rules into tactical weapons to change.

The letter asks the three parties "to work together in an open, public and transparent process to amend the rules of the house before the next session to better reflect and respect due process, as well as to promote more meaningful public participation in the legislative process."

"We would like to see a constructive resolution that can prevent a recurrence of this," Thomas said.

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.

   Read full biography