Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

NDP serves itself

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The report of the Manitoba ombudsman into the alleged partisan action of a senior civil servant speaks to the grey areas and blurred lines that make it difficult to offer precise guidelines for appropriate relations between elected officials and administrators.

It does not, however, say a word about the deceit and deception that characterized the conduct of several ministers who dodged, ducked and evaded every question in the legislature about the affair.

Then-immigration minister Christine Melnick was at the centre of the storm because it was her assistant deputy minister, Ben Rempel, who invited civil servants and others to the legislature last year to back a government motion on immigration. She said the invitation was not her idea, a falsehood that raised questions about the integrity and political neutrality of her deputy, who was merely following Melnick's orders.

The NDP was in a dispute with the federal government at the time over Ottawa's plan to take control of certain immigration functions it funded.

On at least two separate days in the legislature, according to Hansard, Ms. Melnick was peppered with questions about her role in the issue.

"I ask again," Tory MLA Mavis Taillieu said. "Why has an assistant deputy minister... been doing the NDP's political work?"

Ms. Melnick didn't respond, but instead offered bromides about Manitoba's rosy future. The question was asked again and again, but each time the minister found a way to avoid a frank answer.

Premier Greg Selinger was asked how he could justify "this abuse of an impartial civil servant's position for political purposes," but he, too, ducked and dodged.

Jennifer Howard, house leader at the time, came closest to a direct answer by saying Mr. Rempel's actions were directed at encouraging people "to come and witness democracy in this chamber."

In other words, it was all a harmless exercise in citizenship and no one had done anything wrong.

The ombudsman did not examine this aspect of the story, partly because it was outside his jurisdiction, but also because it would not have offered insight into whether Mr. Rempel had acted in a partisan way.

The distribution of the email was not "intentionally a partisan act," the ombudsman said, although the civil servant failed to consider how his actions might be perceived by the public, as required by the province's values and ethics guide.

The ombudsman found the perception of political partisanship was the result of an unfortunate set of circumstances, but he recommended elected officials and civil servants take a refresher course on the importance of maintaining the public's confidence in the neutrality of the civil service.

Meanwhile, it is shameful that three ministers of the Crown found it convenient to evade the truth in a vain attempt to avoid responsibility. In the process, a defenceless senior civil servant was hung out to dry.

Like all governments that get long in the tooth, the NDP has grown comfortable with the use and abuse of power, but it needs to respect the impartiality of the civil service to ensure Manitobans are properly served by any political party.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Gerald Flood, Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 13, 2013 A12

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