The Manitoba legislature resumes Wednesday with a deeply divided house facing a stack of new bills — 19 of which the public knows nothing about — and a global pandemic that has sparked the biggest health and economic crisis the province has ever faced.

The Manitoba legislature resumes Wednesday with a deeply divided house facing a stack of new bills — 19 of which the public knows nothing about — and a global pandemic that has sparked the biggest health and economic crisis the province has ever faced.

The partisan rift between leaders of the three parties in the legislature is so huge that six prominent Manitobans from across the political spectrum published an open letter Tuesday calling for them to find a way to work together this session.

The letter said parties battling each other using loopholes in the rules of the legislature hurts the Manitobans who elected them — with the opposition stalling the work of the house and the government hiding the content of bills introduced. It called for the government to share the content of all 19 bills by Thursday and for the three party leaders to lay down their tactical weapons.

Based on reaction from the premier and the opposition leaders Tuesday, that's not likely to happen.

"We've always said we'd be ready to sit down with the opposition parties and make the rules work better for people," Premier Brian Pallister said Tuesday when asked if he was taking the letter's message to heart.

If the NDP didn't blockade the legislature last spring the government wouldn't have had to introduce so many bills in the fall, says Premier Brian Pallister. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

If the NDP didn't blockade the legislature last spring the government wouldn't have had to introduce so many bills in the fall, says Premier Brian Pallister. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

"We continue to take that position. They haven't taken us up on the offer," he said at a news conference announcing new COVID-19 public-health orders.

The problem lies with the opposition, the premier said.

"The NDP opposition blockaded the legislature during a global pandemic last spring," he said. That required the government to introduce the many bills in its agenda later in the fall.

His government wanted to release the text of bills it introduced over the winter "so that everyone could have a read, including all Manitobans. That was refused by the opposition as well," the premier said.

Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said the government asked for an "extension on its homework."

"Bills that are introduced at first reading have to be readable and there has to be text," he said, adding the Tories wanted to drop the bills whenever they wanted.

NDP leader Wab Kinew wouldn't say if the official opposition will use any delay tactics when the session resumes. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

NDP leader Wab Kinew wouldn't say if the official opposition will use any delay tactics when the session resumes. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

"We said, 'If they're ready, drop them right now.'"

Pallister said his majority government is doing its best "to catch up" and to be transparent, "in terms of getting the text of the bills out to people."

"I'm calling back the legislature to begin (Wednesday) — which is five weeks earlier than the NDP when they were in government (and) called the legislature back — because we are a hard-working government," he said.

"We are going to have more time to deal with these bills. That is, after all, what elected members of our legislature are paid to do."

NDP Leader Wab Kinew wouldn't say if the official Opposition will use any delay tactics when the session resumes, and maintains his party isn't to blame for the deep divisions in the house.

"I'm not going to tell Mr. Pallister what our game plan is," Kinew told reporters Tuesday. "This has been a partisan environment for well over 100 years and this is the first time a government has ever withheld the text of their legislative agenda.

The pandemic has exposed how dysfunctional the legislature is, says Liberal party leader Dougald Lamont. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

The pandemic has exposed how dysfunctional the legislature is, says Liberal party leader Dougald Lamont. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

"It's really Mr. Pallister and the PCs standing in the way of transparency."

And, as the official Opposition looking out for Manitobans, playing nice with this government is not an option, Kinew said.

"I'm not going to stand by and (stand) down any tool that we have at our disposal so as long as Mr. Pallister is trying to privatize (Manitoba) Hydro, so long as he's cutting health care and so long as he's doing a terrible job managing our pandemic response," he said.

When did MLAs last sit?

The third session of the 42nd legislature has been in recess since Dec. 3. It is scheduled to sit until June 1 except for the week of spring break (March 29-April 2) and the first week of May.

Will all MLAs be allowed in the chamber?

No. As was the case last fall, no more than 17 of the 57 members will be permitted in the house at one time, with the remainder able to join in virtually. The 17 will include 10 government MLAs, five NDP members, one Liberal and the speaker.

When did MLAs last sit?

The third session of the 42nd legislature has been in recess since Dec. 3. It is scheduled to sit until June 1 except for the week of spring break (March 29-April 2) and the first week of May.

Will all MLAs be allowed in the chamber?

No. As was the case last fall, no more than 17 of the 57 members will be permitted in the house at one time, with the remainder able to join in virtually. The 17 will include 10 government MLAs, five NDP members, one Liberal and the speaker.

When will the budget be unveiled?

The government hasn’t set a date but there’s speculation that it could be introduced by early April.

How many bills are carried over from the fall session?

The government introduced 68 bills last fall, including 19 whose contents we have yet to see. Ten of the 68 bills have passed third reading and received royal assent. The remainder are before the legislature. More bills are anticipated to be introduced in the coming months.

What are some of the mystery bills that have been introduced without being distributed to MLAs or the public?

We know little about them except their titles. But they include proposed legislation to modernize the K-12 school system, overhaul portions of the Police Services Act, restrict protest blockades of highways and railways and create an Early Learning and Child Care Act.

Was the Progressive Conservative government breaking any written rules when it introduced 19 bills in the legislature last fall without revealing their contents?

No, but it was ignoring precedent. Section 137 (2) of the rules of the Manitoba legislative assembly states: “A Bill must be printed and distributed in the House at least one day before Second Reading.” The rule has been in place for decades, if not a century or more, according to one local expert contacted by the Free Press. While there have been brief delays, from time to time, in distributing a bill introduced in the legislature, failing to release the contents of multiple bills for months on end is unheard of in Manitoba and other Canadian jurisdictions.

— Larry Kusch

COVID-19 has shown Manitobans that their legislative body is in poor health, Lamont said.

"Like so many crises in the pandemic, it has really exposed all of our dysfunctional systems, and one of them is in this legislature," he said. "The (PCs and NDP) are focused more on punishing each other and scoring political points than they are in getting things done."

Sharing content of the bills that have been introduced then listening to feedback and making improvements is how the system should work, he said.

"That's what people are hoping for. That's not what we're getting right now," he said. "We don't have debate. It is a huge problem. There is a colossal lack of trust. We've burned through it and it's very hard to rebuild."

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.

   Read full biography