If anyone was looking for Manitoba MLAs to lay down their partisan arms and engage in a group hug Wednesday as the legislative assembly resumed sitting after nearly three months, they were sorely disappointed.
Official Opposition Leader Wab Kinew went straight for Premier Brian Pallister's jugular during question period, accusing the Tories of a secret agenda to break up Manitoba Hydro and sell it off in parts. He said government must be "embarrassed" by its legislative agenda and challenged the premier to publicly commit to not privatizing Hydro.
That's rich coming from the "incredible incompetence" of the NDP and the billions they overspent on two Hydro mega-projects while in government, Pallister shot back.
NDP MLA Nahanni Fontaine accused the Pallister government of waging an "attack on democracy." The premier countered with the bizarre claim that the opposition was "harassing and bullying" government.
The barbs and insults flew back and forth like a high school cafeteria food fight, as they do every sitting day of every session, going back to time immemorial.
There was nothing new about it. But it did make a mockery of claims made later in the day by Families Minister Rochelle Squires, who said her government is committed to a respectful workplace where people in the legislature treat each other with dignity. (Squires was referring to the farcical complaints made by former treasury board secretary Paul Beauregard, who said he was "harassed" and "bullied" by NDP MLA Adrien Sala).
My money is on Squires hurling at least one or two inflammatory comments across the chamber floor to her opponents before the end of the session. That’s what politicians do.
Partisan bickering and political wrangling in the legislature is not only commonplace, it’s probably a necessary evil. The legislative assembly is where conflict gets sorted out. It's where power struggles occur. It's not easy to do that in a civilized manner.
So when a group of prominent members of Manitoba’s political and academic community (some of whom were just as sharp-toothed and combative during their political careers) call for greater decorum and respect in the house as they did this week, it’s a nice thought but it’s somewhat naïve. Politics is a blood sport, even in friendly Manitoba.
What is not normal in the legislature is introducing a flurry of bills without revealing their content, which the Pallister government did in early November.
Normally the finer points of when and how bills are introduced in the legislature fall into the category of inside baseball that few outside of 450 Broadway care about. But presenting what Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont calls "phantom bills" (he’s not far off) that have no content and may not even exist at the time of introduction, is an affront to the legislative process. Process matters in this case: how proposed laws are introduced (including how much time opposition members and the public have to examine them before they’re passed) is an integral part of democracy.
Tory house leader Kelvin Goertzen gave a clumsy answer when trying to explain why his government introduced bills months before revealing their content. He said some of them were not ready to be released, although he could not say which ones or how many. This is not the kind of openness and transparency Manitobans should expect from their government when introducing proposed legislation.
It’s unlikely the tone of the legislative assembly will change any time soon. Many house speakers have tried and failed to improve the decorum in the chamber. As long as government wants to remain in office and opposition members want to be in government, confrontation and mutual mistrust is virtually unavoidable.
What is not acceptable is government playing fast and loose with the important tradition of presenting bills (with content) to the legislative assembly for everyone to see, before they’re debated and eventually voted on.
House rules should be amended to prevent that from happening again.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.