The Progressive Conservatives are being accused of using Wednesday’s emergency recall of the Manitoba Legislature to pass additional legislation unrelated to COVID-19.
The three parties agreed to pass bills to help people affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, but it appears the Tories also want to pass some proposed legislation that was introduced before the economic shutdown.
Those measures include temporarily removing the public’s say on Manitoba Hydro electricity rates.
Brian Pallister’s government shared its plans with the House leaders of the other parties. The NDP provided part of the document to CBC.
“The government is trying to take advantage of the pandemic and they’re using the fact that there’s a crisis to try and rush through a bunch of bills into law and stifle debate on them,” NDP Leader Wab Kinew said.
“I’m concerned because democracy is an essential service and we shouldn’t be taking any shortcuts.”
Not clear how pre-existing bills will help
In the memo, the government said passing the eight pre-existing bills “will assist in the provincial government’s response to COVID-19 or address other urgent issues” — although it isn’t clear how the legislation would help.
The document also says the other government bills introduced this session would be moved to second reading and debate finished. This includes a bill that restricts public sector employees to “modest increases” in wages.
The House leaders are still negotiating the terms of Wednesday’s emergency sitting.
“They sneak in this one line that says, ‘By the way, on the day where we’re only supposed to do COVID stuff, we’re going to take advantage and [move to] pass every law that we’ve thought of this year, including the ones that have nothing to do with COVID,'” Kinew said.
PC House leader Kelvin Goertzen was tight-lipped on the government’s plans.
“While we don’t comment on the specifics of negotiations between parties, all of the legislation we are bringing forward as part of the recall of the House is part of our government’s Manitoba Protection Plan response to COVID-19, and will improve the province’s resilience and support Manitobans during this public health emergency,” he said in an email.
Among the eight bills the government wants to pass Wednesday is Bill 44, which would eliminate public input from electricity rate hikes for the next few years.
The provincial government wants to eventually transition annual Public Utilities Board hearings into a multi-year process it says would save taxpayers money. Critics say the annual hearings save far more money than they cost.
In 2018, the third-party utilities watchdog rejected Hydro’s call for a 7.9 per cent rate increase, allowing a 3.6 per cent hike instead.
The NDP also is concerned about legislation that would give government-appointed adjudicators the final say over building and occupancy permit disputes.
A bill to make hunting and angling licences available for purchase online is less contentious.
Kinew said his party’s intention isn’t to debate the merits of each bill, but focus on the pandemic that’s closed scores of businesses and laid off tens of thousands of people.
“We’re going to have enough to deal with tomorrow, with all the things the government is trying to do related to COVID,” Kinew said.
The two parties clashed last month when the first coronavirus cases were reported in Manitoba. The Progressive Conservatives tried to introduce its budget multiple times, but the NDP stalled proceedings to slow the introduction of a number of government bills. The New Democrats were accused by the government of playing politics during a pandemic.
It’s not known whether any of the legislative business will be blocked on Wednesday if the NDP or Liberals object to the legislation that was proposed earlier.
Kinew said his party hasn’t received the content of the new coronavirus legislation it is being asked to endorse.
The NDP has called for direct financial supports for people in need.
So far, the province has offered a rent freeze, child-care subsidies for health-care workers, free online counselling and a volunteer-finding app to help Manitobans, among other measures.
Only one-third of MLAs will be in the legislature Wednesday to ensure physical distancing is practised.
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