POLITICS

Forty bills become law as Manitoba legislature breaks for summer

06/14/2012 11:07 EDT | Updated 08/14/2012 05:12 EDT
WINNIPEG - Manitoba's NDP government ended an eight-week legislature sitting Thursday a little battered and bruised and with a $211-million question hanging over its head.

The New Democrats frequently found themselves on the defensive in the weeks leading up to the summer break. Revelations that some cabinet ministers received free tickets to NHL games led to heavy criticism that dragged on for several days before Premier Greg Selinger apologized and put a stop to the practice.

Selinger admitted the NHL tickets controversy got a lot of public attention.

"It did have a definite currency out there. You folks had fun with it," he told reporters.

"You know what, I think it's fine because it allowed us to focus on what needs to be done going forward."

The government was also accused of using a legislature debate to orchestrate a political rally after it was revealed that bureaucrats had invited immigrant groups to attend — even if they had to take the afternoon off work.

It was an unusual sight to see the NDP, after 12 years of solid majority governments, in hot water. One political analyst suggested that changes in the party's back room, including the January departure of former chief of staff Michael Balagus, have taken a toll.

"I'm not sure there's anyone quite of his skill at the centre any more that can help keep the first minister out of trouble," said Paul Thomas, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Manitoba.

"When you lose some continuity like that, the memory of: 'we've been in this situation before. How do we deal with it?' ... is maybe not as strong as it used to be."

Balagus and former premier Gary Doer, who left in 2009 to become Canada's ambassador to the U.S., were adept at putting controversies to bed quickly, even if it required the government to change course, Thomas added.

"Doer was prepared to compromise at times to diffuse the situation. Above all, he wanted to create the appearance that his government was acting in a manner consistent with the values that Manitobans held," he said.

"Selinger, I think, is a more ideological politician of conviction than Doer was."

The NDP budget drew some of the biggest criticism. The financial plan raised taxes on fuel, cigarettes, insurance policies, spa treatments and other items. It increased user fees for birth certificates, land titles and other services. Yet the budget still forecast a deficit of $460 million.

To keep that figure from ballooning, the government intends to find $211 million in savings. Some $128 million of that is to come from a program review of day-to-day spending in government departments. The remaining $83 million is to come from selling off government assets, most of which have yet to be identified.

The sale of government goods is a sharp departure from previous practice. Most years, the government gets only $100,000 or so from selling off surplus property. Last year, it scored $8 million from selling older water bombers, which are being replaced with newer aircraft.

The government intends to get $8 million again this year from selling more water bombers, and has yet to decide what else will be sold off to raise a further $75 million.

"Government owns 5,614 parcels of land which are currently leased out to municipalities or members of the public. Government owns 420 buildings," Jodee Mason, press secretary to Finance Minister Stan Struthers, wrote in an email.

"All of this is under review."

Some 40 bills introduced in the spring sitting received final approval Thursday: a bicycle helmet law for anyone under 18, new human rights protection for the poor and people who change gender and expanded Sunday shopping that will let stores open before noon.

Another new law will require booster seats for children up to age eight. Another will let municipalities reduce speed limits in school zones.

Thursday's question period may have been the last for Progressive Conservative Leader Hugh McFadyen. He announced his plan to resign after last fall's election that saw the Tories stall at 19 of 57 legislature seats.

"This is a great building to come to work to every day. It's been a great privilege to be in the job I've been in," he said.

The Tories are slated to pick a new leader Oct. 27, and the legislature is not expected to reconvene until November. The only leadership candidate so far, Brian Pallister, could be acclaimed by summer if no one else enters the race.

McFadyen would not say whether he will retain his legislature seat after a new leader is elected.

"There are a couple of bridges to be crossed ... I've got a whole variety of considerations that need to come into play."