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‘I’m very, very disappointed’

Made a scapegoat, former minister alleges

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A FORMER cabinet minister says she has been made a scapegoat by Greg Selinger’s senior political staff in order to protect the Manitoba premier from criticism.

Riel NDP MLA Christine Melnick, a former immigration and multiculturalism minister, said Monday it was senior political advisers to Selinger who directed her department to invite immigrant groups to attend a controversial legislative debate in April 2012.

Selinger said recently Melnick acted on her own in issuing the invite and he and his staff were not involved.

This has angered Melnick, who Monday called her treatment by the premier and his staff "reprehensible."

She said her department was directed by senior political officials, including Anna Rothney, chairwoman of the priorities and planning committee of cabinet, to issue the invitation to immigrant groups in April 2012.

"I was not acting alone; I was acting under the direction of senior political staff," Melnick said.

Since then, she said, senior political operatives, including the premier’s chief of staff, Liam Martin, have denied her opportunities to tell her side of the story.

"I’m very, very disappointed in Greg Selinger. I’m very disappointed. I’ve been loyal. I’ve been a hard-working minister and MLA. And I have been part of the team," Melnick said in a joint interview with the Free Press and The Canadian Press news agency. "And to be treated like this, I think, is reprehensible and just not acceptable."

In an emailed statement late Monday, Matt Williamson, who is in charge of cabinet communications, said on behalf of the government: "Christine Melnick’s claim that she did not direct the civil service to email the invite has proven false.

"Her accusations today are also false. Her previous explanation for making false statements was undiagnosed diabetes. Today she is blaming staff. It’s no secret that several MLAs and staff were involved in getting the word out about the debate in the chamber. Ms. Melnick is the only one to have directed civil servants to send an email and then claim she did not." Melnick was dropped from cabinet in a shuffle this past October. The premier later said a lie Melnick told over who was responsible for the emailed invitation was part of the reason he removed her from his inner circle. Melnick initially indicated assistant deputy minister Ben Rempel acted on his own in inviting members of the immigrant community to a debate on a resolution in the legislature April 19, 2012.

The motion criticized Ottawa’s plans to take over some federally funded immigration programs run by the province. More than 400 people attended the event. So, too, did several Conservative MPs, who vehemently defended the federal government’s decision.

Opposition MLAs accused the NDP government of politicizing the civil service by having Rempel issue the invitation. Acting on a complaint, the provincial ombudsman investigated Rempel’s actions but did not issue a report until December 2013.

Initially, Melnick said, she did not recall directing her department to invite members of the immigrant community to the debate. But by sometime in the summer of 2012, the former minister said she recalled — much to her distress — she had.

She told political staffers of her newfound memory of the event, and she wrote to the ombudsman to inform him she had, in fact, directed Rempel to issue the invitation.

Melnick said all the while she had been feeling under the weather and she sought medical help.

Shortly after she was diagnosed with diabetes in late December 2012, she told senior political operatives she felt her illness likely had contributed to her "confusion" over the events of the previous spring. She said she should inform the ombudsman of that fact, but "it was decided that no letter be sent," Melnick said Monday.

The public was not informed Melnick directed her department to issue the invitation to immigrant groups until it was revealed in the ombudsman’s report this past Dec. 12.

Melnick wished to explain herself when the report came out, but was prevented from doing so, she said, by the premier’s chief of staff.

"I reiterated my health concerns, which were dismissed, and was told that, without any discussion with myself, a press conference was being organized through which the attorney general would announce that I would apologize in the house (when the session resumed March 6)."

She said she attempted to discuss the government’s response with Selinger but was rebuffed by his staff. (In fact, she said, she has not been able to meet with Selinger at all on the issue.) Frustrated, she gave an interview to a CBC reporter Dec. 20, during which she discussed her illness for the first time. Martin then advised her it would be best not to talk to other media.

So when she received requests for interviews from the Free Press and other media, she declined.

In a Dec. 21 conversation with Williamson, she was told "that it did not matter what I had to say; the decision had been made, upon receiving the report to ‘hang me out, in order to protect the premier.’ " Meanwhile, Melnick said Monday it was "pretty darn tough" for her to go public on this matter.

She said she comes from a long line of social democrats, and her grandparents were involved in organizing the 1919 strike.

"I was not a rogue. I was a member of the team," she said.

Melnick said she wants to remain a part of the NDP caucus and plans to run for re-election in Riel in the general election expected in spring 2016.

 

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 4, 2014 A4

History

Updated on Tuesday, February 4, 2014 at 7:09 AM CST: adds sidebar

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