Meaningful sexual assault policy, not politics, should be priority for NDP, PCs

Photo by Levi Garber.

Last November, during the dying days of the NDP government, education minister James Allum introduced Bill 3 to Manitoba’s legislature. Then, this past June, NDP MLA Wab Kinew introduced private member’s bill 204. Now, new PC minister of sports, culture, and heritage Rochelle Squires has introduced Bill 15 into the legislature.

What do these bills have in common? They’re all pieces of policy that mandate post-secondary institutions implement policies on sexual assault. While Bill 3 and Bill 204 are identical, Bill 15 was mildly reformulated to include privately funded post-secondary institutions in its scope, domain over cyber crimes, and a strict definition of what constitutes sexual assault.

It’s taken three bills, two readings, and two votes for this piece of policy to add three pieces of new content to the legislation. This legislation has come to represent the worst of bureaucracy and politics. Not only has the process been inefficient and burdensome, but it’s been accompanied by a steady stream of partisan positioning.

History: Bill 3

This piece of legislation set out to implement a framework in which post-secondary institutions would handle cases of sexual assault within an established set of rules and procedures. Allum was quoted as saying the legislation would act to make sure “there are consequences in place when a situation occurs, and that those consequences are clear and transparent in the first place.”

This was a curious choice of words by Allum, considering the content of Bill 3 in regards to those so-called consequences was neither clear nor transparent. The bill itself fails to define the sort of fate that awaits transgressors beyond the public disclosure of the assault, nor does it outline the kind of policies post-secondary institutions ought to be pursuing.

News of Bill 3 was hot on the heels of a news investigation conducted by CBC in February 2015 that claimed reports of sexual assault on Canadian campuses were too low and indicative of massive rates of underreporting.

The NDP ought to be chided for what was clearly a half-baked scheme to score progressive points with a weary electorate. I can say this with confidence because Bill 3 never saw the light of day. In fact, it was hardly even conceived. After passing one of three rounds of readings, the bill was left to rot in the halls of the legislature.

This was despite the fact the NDP government had an entire spring session at the legislature to complete the bill’s assent into law.

To quote Premier Brian Pallister on the night of his winning election, “If you care, you care about results. If you don’t care about results, you don’t really care at all.”

If the NDP had truly cared about the passage of this sexual assault policy, they would have done more than the bare minimum and easily rushed it through a legislature they dominated with a government majority.

The politics behind policy: Bill 204

Presented as a private member’s bill, Kinew brought back Bill 3 as Bill 204 in June of this year. This second attempt to get the legislation passed may seem like a genuine effort by the NDP, but if that was the case, one should ask why the NDP didn’t simply rush the legislation through its remaining two readings the first time it was presented, as Bill 3, last November. Further, one cannot make the argument that this time lapse was used to develop the bill, as several months later the legislation remained unchanged.

As Manitoba’s Progressive Conservatives (PC) hold a government majority in the legislature, the spotlight had passed to them. The fate of the bill was entirely in their hands. Arguably, having already made it through one reading in the legislature, one could make the claim that the proposed policy is sound enough to warrant at least a tabling of the policy by the government.

However, the PCs have expressed no interest in following the NDP’s policy path. When approached by the Manitoban regarding the future of Bill 204, newly minted education minister Ian Wishart merely said in a statement issued from his office, “We continue to listen and engage in meaningful discussions with education and women’s organizations, as well as students, on initiatives to enhance on campus safety in Manitoba.”

So, by all indications, it seems the NDP were only interested in employing shame tactics against the PCs. The reintroduction of Bill 3 as Bill 204 was just bait for the PCs, meant to be used as political fodder when the government inevitably turned it away.

Moving forward: Bill 15

It is high time the province legislates a strict, substantial policy framework that establishes procedural as well as punitive courses of action for post-secondary institutions to follow when sexual assault is reported on campus. The PC’s Bill 15, although a step in the right direction, is a small one.

Bill 15 expands the size and scope of the legislation to include private institutions, such as religious universities, and the bill issues a substantial, concrete definition of what constitutes sexual assault that extends to cyber-crimes.

That being said, Bill 15 has the same major deficiencies as its NDP predecessors: punitive measures are entirely lacking and its clarity regarding procedural policy is nearly as murky – the province simply hands off the task to individual institutions. The province should be issuing a universal dictate in order to ensure precision, efficiency, and success across the board when it comes to following the legislation.

Whatever benefits are gained from the updates in Bill 15, they could certainly have been enacted sooner if both parties stopped playing politics with this issue. Elected officials of all party stripes would do well to remember that some issues are simply nonpartisan.