“The government maintains the view that the Parliament of Canada alone has the supremacy to enact, amend or repeal any piece of legislation, including the Wheat Board Act. That’s an essential feature of democracy.”
— Federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, October 2011
“If it was important a year-and-a-half ago to have a referendum that affects less than two per cent of Manitobans, why would it not be important to have a referendum now that affects each and every Manitoba citizen?”
— Brian Pallister, April 2013, on the NDP’s “illegal” PST hike
Aside from being Manitoba politicians, what do Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Pallister and NDP Premier Greg Selinger have in common?
Both men have essentially argued against the notion of Parliamentary Supremacy — the intrinsic democratic principle that a government should not attempt to restrict the actions of a future government.
One of the curious statutes of the Canadian Wheat Board Act — before the Conservative government’s alterations became law in December 2011 — was a condition placed on any government that wanted to make changes to the board’s monopoly over the sale of wheat and barley in Western Canada.
The act essentially prevented any federal agriculture minister to even introduce such a bill, without first receiving the green light from affected Canadian producers by way of a vote.
That little statute did not dissuade Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, who introduced a bill to open up the board’s single desk monopoly, and defended the decision not to hold a vote by saying producers had already shown their support for the changes by voting in the Conservative government.
The fact that a Federal Court judge ruled that Ritz broke the law by not holding a vote, after the Wheat Board and its allies asked the court to stop the bill, was a moot point. The House of Commons and the Senate passed the Wheat Board bill, and it was eventually given royal assent.
But the Manitoba government, fearful of the loss of valuable Wheat Board jobs in Winnipeg, stood against the federal government decision, and argued that Ritz should have held a vote of wheat and barley producers, before tabling the legislation — rules of Parliamentary Supremacy be damned.
“With a farmer-controlled organization, it’s fundamental that they have the say and the plebiscite,” Selinger told reporters.
The irony, of course, is that the NDP now finds itself the target of repeated attacks from a Progressive Conservative Opposition that is essentially making the same argument Selinger made — legislation enacted by a previous government must be followed to the letter, or the current government’s actions are deemed “illegal.”
Last year, in spite of Tory attempts to delay the legislation, the NDP passed Bill 20 which both increased the PST from seven to eight per cent, and excused the government from having to hold a referendum on the tax hike, as called for by Section 10 of the Balanced Budget, Fiscal Management and Taxpayer Accountability Act.
Ever since the NDP introduced the bill, the balanced budget legislation, which was created by the former PC government of Gary Filmon, has been used as an effective but hypocritical weapon by the Opposition Tories. And now, in spite of the Parliamentary Supremacy principle — which we have no doubt Pallister is familiar with — he and his party filed a notice of application in the Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench last week to strike down Bill 20.
The application, as noted in a Winnipeg Free Press column yesterday, argues that amendments contained in Bill 20 “are invalid and infringe Section 2(b) and Section 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms as they deprive Manitoba citizens of the right to due process and the ability to vote in a referendum ... and to have their respective legislators vote separately on the abolishment of the referendum and the PST increase.”
Essentially, they’re suggesting that Manitobans have been robbed of their right to due process.
Like the Wheat Board’s attempt to put a halt to Ritz’s legislation, Pallister’s court application has kept the issue in the headlines and on the minds of voters. And it may even draw support from a judge — or condemnation because of the Parliamentary Supremacy principle — only time will tell.
However, being the cynical media that we are, we simply do not believe that the Tories would further limit government legislative powers, subject to the whims of the public, beyond the right to vote in general elections.
It’s a brilliant and highly calculated political stunt, but a stunt nonetheless.