Manitoba government withdraws controversial bills during short legislature sitting

Kevin Rebeck, president of the Manitoba Federation of Labour, throws a labour bill in a trash can outside the Manitoba legislature, in Winnipeg, Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021. Rebeck joined the Opposition New Democrats in celebrating the fact the Progressive Conservative government withdrew five bills that were scheduled to become law this fall. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Steve Lambert

Manitoba's Progressive Conservative government withdrew five bills Wednesday that had faced stiff opposition and were set to become law this fall.

"Ultimately, I think it's not a sign of weakness when a government listens to people. It's a sign of strength," Premier Kelvin Goertzen said.

The most controversial bill was one proposing an education overhaul that would have eliminated all elected English-language school boards. Hundreds of people signed up to speak against the bill at public hearings and lawn signs denouncing it sprouted up across the province.

Another bill would have paved the way for more private liquor sales. A third would have eliminated the automatic right to binding arbitration in labour disputes. The fourth would have made it easier to remove blockades of highways and other infrastructure, while the fifth would have allowed the government to bypass public regulatory hearings and set electricity rates unilaterally.

Goertzen, who was chosen by caucus to take over after former premier Brian Pallister retired last month, said wiping out the bills leaves a clean slate for the next Tory leader, who is to be chosen by party members on Oct. 30. Former health minister Heather Stefanson and former Conservative member of Parliament Shelly Glover are the two candidates.

The winner will get to decide which, if any, of the bills might be revived, Goertzen said. There was public support for the idea of more private liquor sales, he added.

The Opposition New Democrats, who prevented the bills from passing in the spring, celebrated the government's move at a news conference at which people threw copies of the proposals into a garbage can.

NDP Leader Wab Kinew said the next Tory leader and premier might bring back all of the bills.

"They're still going to bring those back, regardless of who is the next leader of the PC Party. We think that's wrong," Kinew said.

Support for the Tory government dropped sharply in opinion polls as the COVID-19 pandemic grew and discontent over education reform erupted.

Kinew said if he is elected premier in the election to be held in 2023, he would not set electricity rates unilaterally, but would revert to open hearings before the Public Utilities Board.

He would not commit to ensuring annual hydro rate increases would be less than the 2.9 per cent set by the Tories last year. Traditionally, the board has allowed increases of between three and four per cent.

"We're in favour of a public process," Kinew said

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 6, 2021.