Push to get education bill to 2nd reading denied, as Pallister celebrates following legislative session

A last-ditch effort to push forward the Tory government’s school reform legislation went nowhere Tuesday, as Manitoba’s premier responded to the end of the spring legislative session by boasting about his party’s record.

At a news conference, Brian Pallister insisted his team embarked on the “most robust” legislative agenda “likely in decades” in Manitoba by passing more than 65 pieces of government legislation since last fall.

That legislation includes bills that slashed the education property tax by 25 per cent, implemented paid sick leave during the pandemic and tightened rules around trespassing on farmland.

“Manitobans are a hard-working people, and we are a hard-working government and we are relentless in our pursuit of protecting and safeguarding Manitobans’ lives and livelihoods too,” Pallister said.

In the dying days of a legislative session often overshadowed by the pandemic, the government sought to get its controversial reform of the public school system to second reading.

The NDP chose Bill 64, The Education Modernization Act, as one of five bills it can designate to hold over until the fall. The government sought an exception, saying it was worried about cramming more than 300 presenters into three weeks of upcoming public hearings on evenings.

Those committee hearings can’t take place until the bill has had its second reading — which now won’t happen before October, when the legislature’s fall session begins.

Timeline to hear presenters troubling: Goertzen

In a May 28 letter to Opposition House leader Nahanni Fontaine, government House leader Kelvin Goertzen urged the NDP to ensure committee hearings could be held in September.

“The government’s desire is to ensure that all presenters can have their say on this bill. However, without co-operation this timeframe will cause some difficulty for presenters who do not know when they are going to be called upon and who have professional, family or other commitments,” Goertzen said in the letter.

As of Tuesday, the NDP said 341 people have registered to speak at committee hearings for the bill — which is believed to be the largest number of individuals slated to speak on any Manitoba legislation in at least a decade.

Each speaker will have 10 minutes at the hearings to say their piece, followed by five minutes for questions. Given the hours needed, it’s expected the hearings will last for many evenings, even if some people registered don’t attend.

On Monday, Fontaine rejected the request for earlier hearings. She said altering the timeline would force people concerned about the bill to present at committee during the busy start of the school year.

Without an education bill to consider, the final day of question period and debates in the chamber was marked by NDP Leader Wab Kinew using his allotted questions to rehash what he perceives as the government’s mistakes in handling the pandemic.

At his news conference, Pallister hinted Manitoba Hydro rates may rise again, but he said the increase would be lower than the average over the last number of years.

His government has been criticized for legislating last year’s rate increase instead of letting the independent Public Utilities Board set the rates. The government is trying to move toward multi-year rate hearings, instead of yearly.

The premier also spent time Tuesday deflecting persistent retirement rumours. It’s been speculated he will step down once the pandemic is through, as he committed in a year-end interview with The Canadian Press last December to staying on to guide Manitoba through the COVID-19 crisis, but didn’t expressly say he’d serve his entire term.

On Tuesday, he told a reporter he doesn’t know how he would be able to go on if he wasn’t fielding questions from media. 

“I don’t know if I could handle it, so I’ll definitely be back in the fall,” Pallister said.