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Brian Pallister’s education bill is a case study of authoritarian neoliberalism

Canadian PoliticsEducation

Outrage over the Manitoba government’s proposed education reforms has already been widespread, with unions and other civil society groups reacting to the proposed dismantling of Manitoba’s public school boards. Photo from Flickr.

As economic turmoil continues to snowball in the wake of the COVID crisis, Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister’s approval rating has taken a nose dive, while his government’s pursuit of austerity and ideologically inspired programs is pushing policy debate into a dark corner.

This week, the Progressive Conservatives announced long-expected changes to the province’s education system, unveiling plans to cut $40 million in administration costs by eliminating all but one of Manitoba’s elected school boards, merging school divisions and setting up a centralized provincewide education authority stacked with government appointees.

According to the CBC, the legislation will also place the Manitoba Teachers’ Society (MTS) in charge of collective bargaining for teachers, while “excluding principals and vice-principals from the union altogether.”

The new model was outlined in a bill put before the legislature on Monday, March 15.

Outrage over Bill 64, the Education Modernization Act (EMA), has already been widespread, with unions and other civil society groups reacting to the proposed dismantling of Manitoba’s public school boards. Important context provided by amendments to the Labour Relations Act (LRA) and the Public Schools Act (PSA), released in October and November respectively, shows that the Pallister government’s education review is primarily centred around the premier’s eagerness to undermine the MTS and the public education system writ large.

An iron fist in a velvet glove

The potential for a radical restructuring of Manitoba’s education system has been on the left’s radar since former Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen participated in a webinar last year featuring notorious charter school advocates Betsy DeVos and Ted Cruz.

During the online panel Goertzen articulated his desire to “promote choice within education,” ambiguous rhetoric that raised eyebrows as it was uttered in the company of two prominent advocates of dismantling and defunding public schools in the United States.

As CD’s Harrison Samphir wrote in May 2020, “Goertzen’s enthusiasm about ‘promoting choice’ within the school system […] should worry defenders of public education… [It signals] the potential for a radical restructuring of Manitoba’s education system.”

By October, it appeared as though these predictions were materializing with worrisome amendments to the LRA and the PSA.

The amendments to the LRA and its influence on the MTS have not received appreciable media attention. The amendments were largely buried in confusing clauses that ultimately had no connection to the MTS due to the fact that its bargaining rights are formally dictated by the PSA.

However, hidden in the LRA was an amendment to clause (a) of subsection 56(1) which stipulates the Manitoba Labour Board is to be granted authority to replace the MTS’s bargaining unit with virtual impunity. This amendment signalled the Pallister government’s eagerness to reduce MTS self-representation and the union’s constitutional right to participate in collective bargaining unadulterated by intervention from the provincial government.

Amendments to the PSA came into effect in Manitoba on November 2, 2020 through Bill 45, the Public Schools Amendment and Manitoba Teachers’ Society Amendment Act. The bill noted the provincial government would move forward with abandoning bargaining based on school divisions, effectively centralizing collective bargaining for all school divisions and public school teachers in Manitoba, with the exception of Manitoba’s francophone school division, la Division scolaire franco-manitobaine.

Prior to the proposed amendments, school divisions would select their own bargaining units to enable adjustments that fit local demands. In its place, a universal model that features centralized provincial negotiations was proposed. Instead of managing negotiations with separate school divisions that occupy vastly different regions with respect to socioeconomic conditions, the Pallister government is now accumulating the power to influence a key decision-making capability that the MTS should hold.

This is all the more worrying considering the PCs have the capacity to replace members of bargaining units. All teachers will now be subject to a single collective agreement that could potentially be influenced by political bias.

Beyond the capacity that the LRA grants the government to replace bargaining units, under the PSA the minister of education will be tasked with determining who will bargain on behalf of the MTS. However, the minister of education will not be allowed to grant any person outside of the Manitoba School Boards Association to bargain for the union.

This amendment is crucial for understanding the PC’s intention behind the EMA. The new education reform bill will formally abolish Manitoba’s 37 public school division boards in favour of a centralized education authority consisting mostly of government appointees. This authority would determine many education policies including procurement and workforce planning.

To add insult to injury, the EMA would rid the education system of elected school boards, crushing local forms of democracy. School boards are elected by voters situated within different school divisions—these boards were initially established as a meaningful way to engage with community concerns and address those needs to improve local conditions. Critically, school boards were intentionally kept out of the direct purview of the provincial government to check the power of potentially devastating political agendas.

The potential for a radical restructuring of Manitoba’s education system has been on the left’s radar since former Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen participated in a webinar last year featuring notorious charter school advocates Betsy DeVos and Ted Cruz. Photo from Unsplash.

These changes would effectively provide government officials an inside track within the MTS and the school board to make systemic changes as to how public schools are run. The EMA, taken in relation to the recent amendments to the PSA and LRA, reflects a legislated coup that has been carefully orchestrated by the provincial government since October.

Pallister’s intention to undermine the MTS in the spirit of cost-cutting was further underscored by another amendment to the PSA which established that the union must take the province’s fiscal circumstances into consideration during periods of collective bargaining. Although this clause is open to significant interpretation, under PC leadership it will almost certainly be exploited in various economic contexts as a pretense for further austerity.

By scrapping the fractured multi-tier negotiation process the province effectively established a collective bargaining system which guarantees the PCs have significant power to interject in labour disputes and ensure the MTS bargaining unit will adhere to the government’s economic agenda, thereby potentially supressing the union’s aspirations. Further, it provides a useful steppingstone for the PCs to cut public expenditure on education and potentially privatize large pockets of the system.

Resisting authoritarian neoliberalism

Anti-austerity expert and political economist Ian Bruff has warned against an increasingly apparent global trend of neoliberal governments resorting to authoritarianism in periods of economic precarity as a means of ramming through controversial legislation.

“Authoritarianism can also be observed in the reconfiguring of state and institutional power in an attempt to insulate certain policies and institutional practices from social and political dissent,” he writes.

Authoritarian neoliberalism extends beyond visible state force and materializes in the form of legislation and the suppression of the public’s capacity to engage with reform in direct ways.

Notable groups such as Communities Not Cuts Manitoba and other grassroots advocacy organizations vocalized their opposition to the province’s recent tabling of 19 different bills which were withheld from public viewing, stunting proper democratic deliberation, creating “real and unnecessary fear amongst community stakeholders.”

By hiding legislation from the public’s view, Pallister engaged in a form of democratic repression in a period when approval ratings for his political agenda are among the worst in Canada. Approximately 70 percent of Manitobans disapproved of the premier heading into 2021.

Of course, the EMA was one of the 19 bills that the government withheld from the public, and its contents have officially revealed the PC’s apprehension about making the legislation viewable. Its contents were finally released on March 15. Interpreted together, the LSA, PSA, and EMA indicate an inter-bill education coup in Manitoba and validate the very legtimiate concerns of public school advocates across the province.

The key amendments to the LSA, PSA, and EMA would equip the PC government with heightened authority to pursue its austerity agenda while stymieing the autonomy of associated school boards and the MTS.

“The Pallister conservatives are driving their ideological agenda with an unprecedented attack on our local democracy, and this time it will affect our children,” said Lee McLeod, the regional director of the Canadian Union of Public Employees. “School support staff are worried that such a major overhaul will result in cuts to education, will leave our most vulnerable students and parents with fewer resources, and even less ability to raise their concerns and needs.”

Manitobans must resist this power grab and stay vigilant of legislative bills shrouded in political posturing and hidden clauses. In the absence of fierce opposition, the result could be a far less democratic province and the decimation of our public education system.

We are witnessing the rise of authoritarian neoliberalism in Manitoba. This is both a symptom of wider crises that surround the premier and his ideologically-driven approach to governance.

Lucas Edmond is the comments editor at the Manitoban and a writer based in Winnipeg. He is completing his double honours degree in history and anthropology at the University of Manitoba and has specialized interests in economic and social history, labour history, and critical political ecology. The opinions expressed in this piece are his own, and not necessarily those of his employer.

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