The attention rightly paid by the media to the COVID-19 crisis in Canada and the world has for a moment relieved Canadians from the usual coverage of provincial politics, and what may be transpiring in provincial legislatures. But there is a COVID-19 dimension to the politics of what is going on in some legislatures, and Manitoba is one of them. Alberta is also one as Premier Jason Kenney urges the NDP Opposition to swiftly pass his budget because of the crisis. But in Manitoba, the Opposition NDP succeeded for days in preventing Premier Brian Pallister’s government from even tabling the budget — or so Pallister would have Manitobans believe.
What the NDP has been up to is more nuanced than that, but only some knowledge of the rules in Manitoba makes that clear. March 18 was the deadline for the Manitoba government to introduce bills that would be guaranteed passage by the end of June, with the exception of five that can be selected by the Opposition for being postponed to the fall sitting. Normally bills are introduced serially, not all at once, and certainly not at the same time as the budget. In this case the Pallister government was planning to introduce 20 bills at the same time as the budget on March 11.
Manitoba NDP Leader Wab Kinew charged Pallister with an attempt to obscure debate on the legislative agenda. Kinew argued that such a heavy legislative agenda — dealing with issues like public schools, civil service pensions and decreased oversight of Crown corporations — should not be introduced at the same time as the budget, should not be able to be pushed through by June, and that the delay would give Manitobans time to digest and make known their views on the content of the bills. But by holding up the bills, the NDP also had to hold up the presentation of the budget. A compromise that would have allowed only the budget to go ahead was rejected by the government.
After days of well orchestrated points of privilege, which can be hard work, the NDP succeeded in holding things up until March 18. The budget will now go ahead, but as for the controversial legislative agenda, it will now receive more scrutiny than the government planned for.
In the midst of the procedural wrangle, the premier and his ministers could be heard crying crocodile tears about how Manitobans, in a time of crisis, should expect to have their democratic institutions function normally. This raises the question: Where was the abnormality? Who was behaving in a disrespectful way towards the norms of the legislature? I would argue that it was the Tories themselves.
In my political lifetime there have many procedural tactics of one kind or another employed by opposition politicians, and all too often these tactics have been condemned in principle because they constitute a “delay,” as if to delay something was the ultimate sin in a world devoted to the cult of efficiency. But early on in my parliamentary life, I remember the then-dean of the House, NDP house leader Stanley Knowles, explaining to me that delay was not delay for its own sake, but for the sake of creating the opportunity for awareness of what the government was proposing, and for fulsome public and parliamentary debate. This being especially the case when what is being proposed is controversial, and the government would like to get it passed quickly without much attention before the public catches on. The government might succeed ultimately, especially a government with a majority, but Canadians would be in a better position to judge the merits of what they were doing, and, in due course, judge the opposition as well if in the end they thought the delay was somehow over the top.
I believe that what the Manitoba NDP was doing this last week was most certainly in the category of what Stanley Knowles was talking about. Kudos to Manitoba NDP Leader Wab Kinew, NDP house leader Nahanni Fontaine and the Manitoba NDP caucus for using the rules in a civilized way that got in the way of a government that tried using, firstly, the budget, and then, opportunistically, the COVID-19 crisis, to get in the way of the very institutional normality they profess such an affection for.
Bill Blaikie, former MP and MLA, writes on Canadian politics, political parties and Parliament.
Image: Brian Pallister/Facebook
Editor’s note, March 19, 2020: An earlier version of this story misspelled the last name of the premier of Alberta. He is Jason Kenney, not Kenny.