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Bill 217 - A bill which reviews and updates the criteria for a party to receive official party status in Manitoba

On Tuesday March 9 I introduced Bill 217 at second reading.  The bill  makes changes to the requirements  for a party to receive official  party  status in the Manitoba legislature.   If passed,  a  party  with at least two MLAs  and  more  than 10% of the  vote  in the   most   recent provincial election.   My speech to introduce this  bill is below  (from Hansard).  Following the debate, bill 217 passed second reading and will proceed in due course to committee  stage. 

Bill 217–The Legislative Assembly Amendment and Legislative Assembly Management Commission Amendment Act

Madam Speaker: Accordingly, I will now call second reading of Bill 217, The Legislative Assembly Amendment and Legislative Assembly Management Commission Amendment Act.

Hon. Jon Gerrard (River Heights): I move, seconded by the MLA for St.  Boniface, that Bill  217,  The Legislative Assembly Amendment and  Legislative Assembly Management Commission Amendment Act; Loi modifiant la Loi sur l'Assemblée législative et la Loi sur la Commission de régie de l'Assemblée législative, be now read a second time and be referred to a committee of this House.

Motion presented.

Mr. Gerrard: Madam Speaker, Bill 217 is to address a longstanding need to change the definition of what is a recognized opposition party in order to have better democracy, better government and better results for Manitobans. In an important sense, the current rules around official party status defy reality and depend on a fiction that MLAs who run together on the same banner, for the same party, and elected together, work together and vote together are all independents.

      Political parties are essential in our democracy. They bring people together in a common cause. Recognizing what constitutes a recognized political party is a cornerstone of democracy in our province. Recognized political parties have privileges, including the right to speak on ministers' statements without leave, the right to be represented as members on legislative committees, the ability to ensure they have a proportionate share of questions in Estimates, and many more.

      We have many rules and procedures in this House, many of them important, meaningful and justified by past practice, but the reason for choosing four seats is not known. It appears to be arbitrary, especially when compared to other provinces. It is time it is revisited in order to better reflect the current reality.

      If we look across Canada, we see the following. In British Columbia, the Green Party was granted official party status with three seats in a legislature of 87 members; in Alberta, the NDP was granted official party status with two seats in 1997, in 2001 and in 2008, in a legislature of 87 MLAs; in Saskatchewan, official party status is provided for a party of two seats in a legislature with 61; in Nova Scotia, a party with two seats get–gets official party status, provided the  party ran candidates in three-quarters of the constituencies and received at least 10 per cent of the  overall vote, in a legislature with 51 seats; in Prince  Edward Island, the precedent is that a party of one will receive official party status in a legislature with 27  seats; in Newfoundland and Labrador, official party status is with two seats out of 40; in New Brunswick, the Green Party has received official party status with three MLAs, and the People's Alliance received official party status with two seats.

      This means that Manitoba has set a higher bar for party status than other provinces. It's time to change the approach to deciding the criteria for official party status in Manitoba to make it similar to what's happening in other provinces, which most commonly would be a party with two seats, as is present in six other provinces, which is most other provinces of a similar size to Manitoba.

      In Bill 217 we will also require that, for a party to have official party status, that the party must receive more than 10 per cent of the votes cast in the most recent provincial election. There is an important distinction here. It means that two or three MLAs who are independents would not simply be able to declare themselves a party without popular support or running for election first to establish a mandate. Floor crossing would still be allowed.

      Indeed, any party in Manitoba which receives 10  per cent of the vote is one which represents a large number of Manitobans. In the most recent provincial election, as an example, Manitoba Liberals received 14.5 per cent of the popular vote. This is just over a percentage point less than the 15.98 per cent of the vote that the NDP received at the federal level.

And, like the NDP at the federal level, the popular support we received is much greater than the number of seats: 14.5 per cent of the current population of Manitoba is about 200,000 Manitobans. It is important that the views of 200,000 Manitobans are well represented in our Legislative Chamber. This is what democracy is about. Without official party status, the views of 200,000 Manitobans are not able to be adequately represented.

      It is to be noted that if the seats in the Manitoba Legislature were allocated in proportion to the vote for each party, as happens in some jurisdictions with proportional representation, then the Manitoba Liberals would have received eight seats in the Manitoba Legislature.

      The distortions of our first-past-the-post system are well known. Under­representation of a party like the Manitoba Liberals with seats in the Chamber is another reason why it is appropriate for the party to receive official party status.

    In fact, we believe that at the time this definition of official party status was first created in the 1920s to the 1950s, Manitoba had a different electoral system. We had ranked ballots. Winnipeg–in Winnipeg, people voted for their MLAs on a list, and the people with the most votes won: proportional representation.

      The fact that we have a first-past-the-post system means that the fundamental electoral system that elected MLAs has changed since this rule was established, but the rule has not changed. Supporting this legislation is thus important for all parties and is important for democracy. It's also important to achieving better outcomes for all Manitobans.

      It has been said, especially in politics, that there are three sides to every story. We recognize, though we disagree with the other parties, that they make valuable contributions to debate, policy and legislation. We are proud of the fact that Manitoba Liberal legislative contributions, ideas and bills, which the NDP and the PCs alike have chosen to adopt and call their own.

      There is real value in democracy, in society, in business, in government, to have more voices and more perspectives. [interjection]

Madam Speaker: Order.

Mr. Gerrard: This is a Legislature where the vote and voice of a single MLA has changed the course of our history. Elijah Harper is just one example.

      As MLAs, we all depend on our constituents to bring us new information and new perspectives. Expanding and modernizing the definition of official party status means greater inclusion.

      I will add, finally, that there is no financial component to this bill, nor is it essential. This is simply about expanding and enhancing democracy in this Legislature, something I hope we can all agree on.

      I hope this bill will receive the support from members of the Legislature of all parties so that it can proceed to committee stage.

      Thank you. Merci. Miigwech

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