IN theory, the Manitoba legislature is the deliberative forum where our 57 elected representatives conduct the public’s business by debating proposed legislation, taxing and spending plans, and a kaleidoscopic array of issues that arise in the daily question period.
Unfortunately, in practice over the past five or six decades, the proceedings of the legislature have come to more resemble a permanent election campaign than a deliberative body searching for the public interest.
Party competition has always provided the ideas and energy that drive the institution. That partisanship, however, has become excessive. In the daily question period and in debates on controversial bills, the parties increasingly engage in personal attacks on their political opponents.
Officially, the rules of the legislature are meant to uphold the privileges of individual MLAs, to balance the rights of government and opposition parties, and to promote decorum and civility. In practice, those rules have come to resemble political weapons used to gain short-term advantage.
For their part, governments have tightened up the rules to restrict the opportunities for the opposition to obstruct or to engage in prolonged debates. This has forced opposition parties to use the remaining opportunities under the rules to delay the government’s business in the hope of stirring up controversy that will damage the government’s reputation. This dynamic was on display recently on the day the finance minister sought to deliver the traditional budget speech, a much anticipated event on the political calendar. Without advance notice, the NDP used a procedural device to delay the event, not for one day but for several. Explaining and defending this action was politically difficult and risky for the official Opposition.
The province was in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, and even though the Opposition had earlier supported action to deal with the crisis, the NDP was widely criticized for engaging in shallow political gamesmanship.
There is understandable anxiety that the health crisis will cause a serious economic downturn, so many people wanted to hear how the finance minister would use his budget to cushion the negative economic effects. After sitting in the traditional budget lockup for hours, the media and representatives of various organizations were sent home.
The NDP’s use of a legitimate but arcane rule of procedure added to the difficulty of persuading the public that the stalling tactic was in the service of a good cause. Here is a basic description.
At almost any point in the proceedings of the legislature, MLAs are allowed to raise points of privilege concerning the alleged infringement of their rights. Such claims take precedence over most other business. The Speaker is forced to rule on points of privilege and give reasons for her decision. Those decisions can be appealed, potentially causing further delay.
On the scheduled budget day, NDP MLAs raised numerous points of privilege, some of which were contrived. According to NDP Leader Wab Kinew, his party was not seeking to delay the budget; they even offered to have the budget documents tabled immediately while dispensing with the traditional budget speech, an offer the government refused.
While delay of the budget became the issue, the declared purpose of the NDP, which was to protest the simultaneous tabling a list of 20 government bills, became lost in the furor. The NDP claimed some of the bills were dangerous — an assertion that was made without seeing the content of the bills that would be tabled during the course of the legislative session.
There was the further accusation that the government planned to "ram through" the bills without adequate debate and time to mobilize those segments of the public who would be adversely affected by them.
So, the real NDP purpose was to delay introduction of the bills until a March 18 deadline; after this date, the NDP could take advantage of another rule that requires a government, within 20 days of the throne speech, to table all bills it wants passed during the spring session. With bills tabled later in a session, the Opposition can force hold-over of up to five bills until the fall session.
Premier Brian Pallister took the opportunity to score political points against the NDP. Contrary to his earlier calls for calm and co-operation, he inflamed the situation by accusing the Opposition of sowing fear during the pandemic and an economic downturn. He likened the NDP actions to the recent pipeline-protest blockades, and said the NDP were acting like terrorists.
He claimed the NDP was afraid to debate the budget and the bills on the order paper, both of which they had not even seen.
To avoid future showdowns, the rules should require governments to table actual bills (not just a list) with the throne speech, thus allowing adequate time for debate and public awareness. In return, the Opposition party should push for early referral of bills to committees, where detailed study can occur. They should also be selective in holding over to the fall those few bills they deem to be dangerous, seriously deficient or not easily reversed should they win the next election.
Paul G. Thomas is professor emeritus in political studies, University of Manitoba.