It will be a short and tumultuous session — with one prominent voice missing and another booming from a distance — when Manitoba MLAs resume sitting Wednesday.
When the legislature rose for the summer on June 1, Brian Pallister was premier, Heather Stefanson was health minister and the province's ICUs were drowning under a third wave of COVID-19.
Now, the province is in the fourth wave of the pandemic, Pallister has resigned and his presumptive heir, Stefanson, is in the fight of her political life to become premier, as an outspoken critic of the Tory caucus — Shelly Glover — challenges her for the party leadership.
Interim Premier Kelvin Goertzen — who refers to his role as "caretaker" until after the Progressive Conservative party chooses a new leader Oct. 30 — laid out the government's agenda Tuesday for the rest of the session. To allow for physical distancing, just two-thirds of MLAs will be present in the chamber with the rest participating online.
Members will sit for three days this week and three days next week as the PC government expects to receive the unanimous consent required to withdraw five contentious bills, including Bill 64, which would have scrapped elected English school boards.
Two bills are expected to be passed: the budget implementation bill and Bill 72 (the Disability Support Act), which creates a new income-support program for people with severe and prolonged disabilities and removes the need for them to continually prove they are affected by their disability.
Budget 2021 "helps make life more affordable for Manitobans while providing support in the fight against COVID-19," Goertzen said Tuesday.
"We continue to act to protect the physical and financial health of Manitobans as we deal with the challenges of COVID-19 today while looking forward to a strong economic recovery in the future," he said in a news release.
Pallister may be gone but his budget and the caucus who supported his cost-cutting priorities remain, says the opposition NDP.
"There is no new money in this budget for long-term care," NDP Leader Wab Kinew said Tuesday, referring to the deaths of residents of Maples Personal Care Home during the second wave of the pandemic.
"Even though the PCs have this leadership race going on, we have two candidates trying to distance themselves from Mr. Pallister, we have an interim premier in place. In spite of all those things, the PCs are still making the same mistakes heading into the fourth wave that they did heading into the second and third wave, and we saw how disastrous that was for Manitobans."
The NDP and Liberals say they plan to challenge the majority government's handling of the pandemic and the bills it introduced under Pallister's leadership that it now seeks to withdraw.
"I think question period will be messy," said Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont. "What are we doing about the fourth wave? What happened in the third wave? How can the entire government justify pulling a bunch of bills they were all vocally in favour of in June?"
On top of the health and economic crisis, there's added tension and uncertainty for the PC caucus, Lamont said. The majority backed Stefanson, expecting a victory for the veteran Tuxedo MLA with cabinet experience who could slide into the premier's job right away. If Glover wins, she may run in a byelection for the seat vacated by Pallister in Fort Whyte. The next session of the legislature could begin Nov. 16 as scheduled or not until March, Lamont said.
"We have no idea," he said.
Both women running for leader say they're ready to be premier but neither would do an interview Tuesday.
"Heather is the only candidate ready to get to work starting on Nov. 1," said a statement from Stefanson's campaign.
"I plan to run in a byelection as soon as possible, but it is premature to comment on where or when that may occur," Glover said in an email.
Normally, the premier is expected to be a member of the legislature and available to answer questions during question period, said Paul Thomas, University of Manitoba political studies professor emeritus.
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The third session of the 42nd legislature will resume Wednesday at 1:30 p.m.
Members will sit for six days: Wednesday through Friday this week; Tuesday through Thursday next week.
There are 56 MLAs following the resignation of Brian Pallister from his Fort Whyte seat on Monday.
COVID-19 safety protocols will be in place, with one-third of members required to participate virtually. The seating allocation was agreed upon by house leaders: 24 government members, 12 New Democrats, two Liberals
Masks are to be worn when entering, leaving or moving around the chamber. Masks can be removed when MLAs are seated or standing at a microphone. Staff will be masked.
Measures for sanitizing are in place.
An Indigenous land acknowledgment won't be included until the next session of the legislature, Premier Kelvin Goertzen said earlier.
"If a premier loses her seat, or if she is selected as party leader-premier mid-term without holding a seat, the unwritten constitutional convention is that she must seek to gain a seat as soon as reasonably possible," Thomas said, noting that "reasonably possible" is open to interpretation and controversy.
"It would not be appropriate and sustainable for a premier to stay in office without being an MLA for a long period of time," he said, offering an example.
In 1988, after the defeat of the NDP government on a budget vote — in which Jim Walding voted against his party — Howard Pawley resigned as premier and Gary Doer won the ensuing leadership contest. Doer chose not to assume the position of premier pending the outcome of the election that was forced by the defeat of the government, Thomas said.
If Glover wins the PC leadership, she could preside over the Tory caucus and informally set directions for the government, but she shouldn't assume the position of premier until she's secured a seat in the legislature, Thomas said. It would be "constitutionally problematic" for her to lead cabinet without winning a seat, he said.
"All ministers appointed to cabinet become legally responsible for a department and sign an oath of confidentiality respecting the proceedings of cabinet. Without being sworn into office, she would not be bound by these requirements," Thomas said.
With the shortened fall session lasting just six days, there will be ample time to plan a byelection and have Glover installed for the spring session, if she wins the leadership, he said.
"Most of the work will be inside government on the budget and the planning of a legislative program for the spring session," he said.
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.