As the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba reconvened on March 3, its list of government bills for the current legislative session skipped from 45 to 55, then again from 62 to 64, with a missing number 67. This is because the Province released 19 bills with no text other than the titles – an action some groups, like Communities Not Cuts Manitoba, have called “antidemocratic.”
While the missing bills were not mentioned on the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba’s list, the titles, which were released on Nov. 2, are listed on a government document depicting the status of bills, including the Protection of Critical Infrastructure Act and the Education Modernization Act.
Dr. Paul Thomas, a professor emeritus of political studies at the University of Manitoba, sees this tactic as deeply problematic. He says it not only compromises the Opposition’s ability to critically assess and scrutinize the bills, but it also limits the amount of time the public is allotted to respond.
“If you deny interested groups and individuals access to the content of bills, then you’re undermining (them). You’re weakening their opportunity to provide informed commentary,” Thomas says.
Dougald Lamont, the leader of the Manitoba Liberal Party, says the Manitoba NDP put forth a challenge in November to the Province’s presentation of blank bills. He says the Manitoba Liberal Party supports the challenge.
“We don’t actually know if there is any text, or if they’re just ideas,” Lamont says.
If the challenge is taken up, Thomas says it will be up to the speaker, Myrna Driedger, to make the final call. Lamont says he hopes it will result in the bills being redrafted and re-presented entirely.
Lamont explains that in order for bills to be passed by June, they must be presented by a deadline in November. In a CBC News article published on March 2, Premier Brian Pallister blamed the NDP’s lack of co-operation in December for the “blockade” of bills.
“We’re ready to play nice, but we’re also the elected government of Manitoba, so I would encourage the Opposition not to try to pretend that they are the government. They are not,” Pallister said.
Currently, Thomas says there is no clause in the Rules of the Assembly explicitly stating that parties must present the bills with text when they’re first tabled.
The rule “creates no requirement that the content of all bills has to be revealed when they’re first tabled. The only requirement that a bill be printed and distributed comes one day before the second reading,” Thomas says.
For this reason, Thomas suspects it may be unlikely that the challenge will follow through, as it technically doesn’t break any assembly rules. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that waiting until the last minute is fair party etiquette. If one party holds back bill text, Thomas fears it could tempt future governments to “engage in payback” by doing the same.
“We’re supposed to be having an informed dialogue,” Thomas says. “That can’t happen when information is held back and confidential until the very last minute.”
At press time, at least nine bills were still missing from the Legislative Assembly’s list of government bills.
Published in Volume 75, Number 21 of The Uniter (March 10, 2021)