Manitoba proposal would require referendum for changes to voting, Constitution

WINNIPEG — The Manitoba government is proposing that any significant changes to how people vote require a referendum.

One would also be needed before the legislative assembly voted on a resolution that authorized an amendment to Canada's Constitution.

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Justice Minister Cliff Cullen said legislation introduced Thursday would make democracy more transparent. The bill specifically calls for a referendum before a change to a proportional representation voting system.

"This was really about giving Manitobans a say," Cullen said. "We thought those were important policy changes (and) that Manitobans should be engaged in that discussion."

A referendum is already required for certain tax increases and for any move to privatize large Crown corporations such as Manitoba Hydro or Manitoba Public Insurance.

The proposed legislation lays out how a referendum would be called and how the wording of the question would be developed. Cabinet could introduce a referendum question for legislature approval, which would be followed by public committee hearings.

The results of a referendum would be advisory only unless otherwise specified in different legislation.

In 2013, the then-governing New Democrats introduced a bill that suspended the requirement in the current law to hold a referendum before a sales tax increase.

The Progressive Conservatives filed — and eventually lost — a lawsuit that argued it was illegal for the NDP government to raise the tax without consulting voters.

"The NDP completely gutted the referendum process. They took that right of Manitobans away from them," Cullen said. "Our intent is to restore that right for Manitobans."

The bill also lays out what would be spending limits for political parties, third parties and individuals. Cullen said it mirrors current legislation around elections financing.

Opposition NDP Leader Wab Kinew said there is a lot missing in the bill. He said the language is unclear on which corporations could be involved in lobbying during a referendum.

"There's kind of a bit of a grey area," Kinew said. "If we step back and look at who is bringing the bill forward, we might conclude that it will certainly benefit the conservative cause to have rules like that."

Kinew said the bill would not protect all Crown corporations and their subsidiaries from privatization and he suggested that independent experts should draft the question, not cabinet.

Thursday was the last day of the fall sitting for the legislature, which is to resume in March.

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