POLITICS

Talk of sheep-shearing marks the start of opposition filibuster in Manitoba

06/18/2013 06:59 EDT | Updated 08/18/2013 05:12 EDT
WINNIPEG - Progressive Conservative house leader Kelvin Goertzen talked of sheep-shearing and canoe races Tuesday, as he started a filibuster — albeit an office-hours one — of the Manitoba government's planned sales tax increase.

Goertzen has won unlimited time in the legislature to talk on Bill 20 and has vowed to take as long as possible to stall it. During his first hour Tuesday, he spoke of the many events at the upcoming Manitoba Highland Gathering in Selkirk, Man.

"Scottish heritage is celebrated with dance, pipe and drum competitions, heavy games of brawn, sheep-shearing and herding, canoe and kayak races," Goertzen said as he ran down a list.

"Clan booths, a Scottish market, masked bands and a Scottish pub."

The filibuster is the latest in a series of tactics the Opposition Tories have used to try to delay the tax hike. The Tories cannot defeat the bill, as the NDP government has a solid majority, but the Tories have been doing everything they can to slow down its passage.

Bill 20 will raise the provincial sales tax one per cent to eight per cent as of July 1. Under the province's balanced budget law, a sales tax increase must first be approved through a referendum, but Bill 20 also eliminates that requirement.

The government faces another dilemma because of the Tory delay tactics. Manitoba is one of the few provinces with mandatory public hearings on all bills, but hearings cannot be held until a bill passes second reading in the legislature. The opposition delays mean the public hearings may well occur after the tax hike takes effect, rendering public input moot.

Goertzen's filibuster is made easier by the rules of the legislature, which require unanimous consent of all members for the house to sit beyond the normal closing time of 5 p.m. each day. The NDP asked for consent, which would have forced Goertzen to be on his feet all night and into Wednesday, but the Tories rejected the idea.

That means Goertzen will only have to speak for an hour or two each day, following question period, and lessens the risk of wearing himself out.

He made no apologies for his tactics.

"I won't stand here ... and apologize for what this caucus has done. I'm proud of this caucus," Goertzen said in the chamber.

The government has said the tax hike is needed to pay for flood-fighting infrastructure and to protect front-line services in the wake of a continued sluggish economy. NDP house leader Jennifer Howard has criticized the Tories' tactics, saying it has stalled passage of the budget estimates and dozens of other bills, including one aimed at cracking down on bullying in schools.

Legislature members are normally limited in their speaking time, but party leaders have unlimited time and Tory Leader Brian Pallister has assigned his time to Goertzen.

The NDP has one weapon in its battle — it can invoke closure to end debate on any bill, but so far, Howard has said that idea is not on the table.