POLITICS

Manitoba agrees to newborn hearing screening and to more talk about bullying

09/04/2013 06:18 EDT | Updated 11/04/2013 05:12 EST
WINNIPEG - Manitoba's NDP government has agreed to offer hearing tests to all newborn babies as part of a deal with the opposition to end a legislative log-jam.

The government has agreed to pass a bill put forward by the Progressive Conservatives and backed by lone Liberal member Jon Gerrard.

It would offer universal screening tests for hearing problems for all newborns, on top of existing tests for cystic fibrosis and other conditions.

Right now, only some regional health authorities offer the hearing tests to all babies, while others offer the test only to newborns deemed to be high-risk.

The government has also agreed to debate, but not necessarily pass, a bill from Gerrard that would make bullying an offence under the province's human rights code.

The deals stem from an agreement last week among the political parties to end opposition stalling at the legislature, which had put more than 40 government bills on hold.

Ensuring all newborns undergo hearing tests is crucial, Gerrard said Wednesday.

"Children who have hearing problems who are not caught very often then go on to have speech problems, language problems, learning problems."

Gerrard's anti-bullying bill is aimed at building on a government bill to crack down on bullies in schools. His bill would apply to adults as well and would allow someone who has been bullied to file a complaint with the Manitoba Human Rights Commission.

Currently, the commission can only get involved if someone is being bullied specifically because of their race, disability, sex or another characteristic covered by the human rights code.

Attorney General Andrew Swan said the government has agreed to let the bill be debated this week, but has not made a commitment to pass the legislation.

Swan told reporters he has some concerns about Gerrard's bill — he wouldn't offer any details — but he vowed to keep an open mind.

"There's no monopoly on good ideas when it comes to protecting people and dealing with bullying, so I'll be interested to hear what Dr. Gerrard has to say."

The legislature has been sitting since April and has seen only a handful of measures passed because of opposition stalling tactics. The Tories began the blockade when the government introduced a bill to raise the provincial sales tax to eight per cent from seven per cent and eliminate the need for a referendum that is currently required for any sales tax hike.

The standoff ended last week when the NDP agreed to hold off on passing the tax hike bill and several others until November. In exchange, the Tories agreed to have the anti-bullying bill and nine others go to a final vote by Sept. 17.

Kevin Chief, the NDP minister responsible for the province's Healthy Child programs, said the agreements show that political parties can work together.

"I think it sends a strong statement to people that we're here working hard and doing things that Manitobans want us to do."