Manitoba government aims for new powers to fight COVID-19 in emergency sitting

By | April 15, 2020

As Manitoba politicians gathered Wednesday to vote on giving the government more powers during the COVID-19 pandemic, they found their place of work wasn’t immune to the effects of a global health crisis.

Only a third of MLAs were allowed to attend the emergency sitting, to ensure physical distancing guidelines were followed.

The chamber was scrubbed clean between every break. MLAs sat at least one seat away from each other, and one member took additional precautions.

“They can still hear me through the mask?” Liberal MLA Cindy Lamoureux asked as she rose to speak, wearing a cloth mask she sewed.

Politicians were mainly co-operative Wednesday, supporting the introduction of several COVID-19 relief measures during the one-day sitting. 

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“Our province, our nation, our planet face an unprecedented series of challenges,” Premier Brian Pallister said, before several hours of legislative business.

“Until a cure is found and an effective vaccine is created, each of us — all of us — have a responsibility to prevent the spread of this virus and the harm caused by it.”

The governing Progressive Conservatives want the bills — several of which enhance the government’s powers — to receive royal assent by the end of the day.

Authority to restrict travelling

Among those are a bill that would allow the chief public health officer to restrict people from travelling to and from certain areas, and order people to take precautions — such as self-isolation — to prevent the spread of a disease.

A medical officer or inspector would have the means to take any action they deem necessary to address any person who flouts a public health emergency order under the bill.

Cabinet would have the authority to make emergency orders under another bill. The new measures would help the government establish emergency shelters, fix prices on necessary goods and services, and level penalties for price gouging.

A masked official at the Manitoba Legislature on Wednesday, where staff and politicians took measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

One bill would prevent workers from being terminated or disciplined if they’re away from work during the pandemic, and ensure they aren’t required to provide a doctor’s note.

Some of the bills included measures already announced, such as freezing rent and banning landlords from evicting tenants for non-payment during the pandemic.

Another bill includes previously announced measures to make it easier to rehire nurses and other health professionals who have retired or moved outside the province.

Another would remove the provincial sales tax on home and business property insurance as of July 1 this year, as the government promised last week. It had previously suggested that change wouldn’t happen until next year. 

The Opposition New Democrats supported many of the bills, but insisted the government wasn’t doing enough. They have repeatedly called on the Tories to offer direct financial assistance to people and small businesses, which other provinces have already done.

Pallister said his government didn’t want to duplicate unclear federal relief measures, but Kinew accused the Progressive Conservatives of squandering time as people and businesses suffer.

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister speaks with a few of his ministers after an emergency session of the legislature. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

“The government seems to have tried to bring forward everything except for financial assistance,” he said. “The piece missing was a financial lifeline for people who are on hard times.”

Pallister hinted in a conference call with reporters that he would have additional supports to announce next week.

Kinew added the government backed down on its proposal to bundle existing bills with the new COVID-19 legislation, such as a bill including legislation to make hunting and angling licences available for purchase online.

At the start of the emergency meeting, Speaker Myrna Driedger said legislative staff will study the logistics, over the next few weeks, of establishing virtual sittings going forward.

Pallister said he wasn’t discounting the value of question period and debating bills, but told reporters his government is preoccupied with responding to the pandemic.

“It is not imperative that we sit again for the foreseeable future,” he said.

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