Playing cat and mouse in the legislature

Sexual assault policies have become self-serving political tools

Illustration by Gabrielle Funk

With a rumoured lift of Manitoba’s tuition cap, the Progressive Conservative government taught the New Democratic Party a costly lesson in governance. 

Wab Kinew, Critic for Education, Advanced Learning and Training, introduced the Post-Secondary Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment Policy Act, otherwise known as Bill 204. 

The bill would have seen public post-secondary institutions develop and implement policies and procedures to deal with sexual violence on campus. Policies would be built in consultation with students, training in understanding the policy would be made available and results of activities would be publically reported. 

Bill 204 was defeated. During the vote, several male NDP MLAs heckled female PC MLAs who voted against the bill – a shameful display from any party, let alone one that introduced legislation to combat sexual violence and harassment. 

PC Minister of Education and Training Ian Wishart then introduced Bill 15, the Sexual Violence Awareness and Prevention Act. The proposed legislation is more robust, offering review timelines and a comprehensive definition of sexual violence, emphasizing issues of consent and cultural sensitivity. 

Ultimately, students’ concerns about sexual violence on campus will be addressed. But the process to this point has shown a troubling side of the Manitoba Legislative Assembly. 

Both parties seem more concerned with making headlines and demonstrating party strength than positively impacting Manitobans. The NDP may have been trying to bait the PCs into looking bad by defeating legislation to combat sexual violence. 

But in turn, the PCs chose to defeat the NDP’s work rather than amend it and allow the NDP any credit. This partisanship begs a more concerning question about our political system: what do politicians care about?

In hindsight, the original NDP legislation appears to be a vanity piece intended to bolster the perception of the party’s commitment to progressive politics. The original Post-Secondary Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment Policy Act, Bill 3, was introduced late in session and doomed to die on the floor when the writ was dropped for the April election. Bill 204 was a private member’s bill, a type of bill that rarely passes in a majority government. The PCs’ ability to construct more thoughtful legislation also brings into question the NDP’s tactical objectives. 

For their part, the PCs all too enthusiastically took the opportunity to win political points. Instead of building a working relationship with the opposition, the PCs checkmated the NDP into supporting PC legislation.

This confrontational arrangement leaves an important population behind: people. In this case, students who demanded standalone campus policies to combat rape culture and people who encounter rape culture on campuses, in work places and in their personal lives. 

Sadly, the government and opposition seem to share at least one key position on the issue of rape culture: they care more about brand reputation. But rape culture is not a political pawn. It needs to be taken seriously. 

It’s time for politicians to re-evaluate their priorities. Rather than playing political games or trying to undermine the other party, elected officials should set aside their egos and take their work seriously. If they can’t do this, maybe it’s best they consider resigning.

Jesse Blackman is a former vice-president with the University of Winnipeg Students’ Association.

Published in Volume 71, Number 8 of The Uniter (October 27, 2016)

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