Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Selinger’s capacity to lead now the issue

Inner workings of government not pretty

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Justice Minister Andrew Swan speaks to members of the immigrant community in April 2012. The question of who invited these people to the rally to protest a decision by Ottawa sparked the original controversy.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Enlarge Image

Justice Minister Andrew Swan speaks to members of the immigrant community in April 2012. The question of who invited these people to the rally to protest a decision by Ottawa sparked the original controversy. Photo Store

IN case you were wondering, this is what a train wreck looks like.

Kicked out of cabinet and then humiliated by her political boss after she admitted lying in the legislature, Christine Melnick has come back with a vengeance.

In an interview with the Free Press, Melnick alleged she is the fall-woman for political misdeeds ordered up by senior political staff to Premier Greg Selinger. In that interview, Melnick has driven the train she was on down Broadway, up the front steps of the Manitoba legislature and directly into Selinger’s office.

Even with this latest incendiary volley from Melnick, this is not a simple story to dissect. Melnick’s most recent allegations raise as many new questions as they answer.

The incident in question surrounds a government resolution in April 2012 to protest a federal decision to take over immigration settlement services.

More than 400 immigration workers and immigrants showed up to hear debate on the resolution. The Progressive Conservative Opposition howled about the staged event, while four federal Tory MPs took the rare step of attending as well.

Eventually, an anonymous complaint was made to the Manitoba ombudsman, alleging senior civil servants had been conscripted to perform partisan work. That allegation was sparked by the release of an email from Ben Rempel, the assistant deputy minister of immigration, in which he invited people to attend the debate.

Pounded by the Tories in the legislature about whether she had directed Rempel to make the invitations, Melnick denied doing any such thing. Melnick was removed from cabinet in an October 2013 shuffle.

Selinger’s decision to drop her from cabinet was explained in December, when ombudsman Mel Holley issued his report, confirming Melnick had directed Rempel to make the invitations. Shortly after, Melnick told CBC she was suffering from undiagnosed diabetes at the time she was initially grilled in the legislature, and did not remember tasking Rempel to make the invitations.

That explanation has not satisfied her critics or her former colleagues. However, the real question is why Selinger and his team did not more forcefully intervene and make the point they really wanted to make: This was not a partisan event, and the involvement of an ADM was entirely appropriate.

This was a dispute between the federal and provincial governments, not between political parties. The Government of Manitoba tabled a resolution to denounce Ottawa’s decision to take over settlement services, and then issued invitations to interested parties to witness the debate.

This was no more partisan than the province buying ads to denounce Ottawa’s decision to gut the Canadian Wheat Board. It’s intergovernmental politics. Holley acknowledged in his investigation Rempel did not participate in a partisan activity. Holley’s point was it could appear partisan, which was still an issue of concern for the ombudsman.

Again, why didn’t Selinger clarify the issue? Diabetes or not, if the premier gets up and continues to make that argument, then it really doesn’t fall to Melnick to answer any questions about her ADM.

However, for many months after the initial squawk over the invitations, Selinger and his ministers participated in the traditional game of "duck the question." Asked direct questions, they gave indirect on nonsensical answers. This is standard operative procedure for a government, and in this case it backfired spectacularly.

Consider the events of last week as a prime example. At a news conference, Selinger was asked if any of his staff were involved in the plan to invite immigration workers and immigrants to the April 2012 rally. "The record is very clear that the minister invited people down."

That turned out to be a fateful comment. Not only was it not entirely true, but it was apparently the straw that broke Melnick’s back and prompted her to reach out to the Free Press.

NDP sources confirmed that, just as Melnick alleged, she was at a meeting in the days prior to the start of the debate with Anna Rothney, the secretary of the planning and priorities committee of cabinet and senior-most political staffer in the government. At that meeting, the government resolution on immigration was discussed, as was a plan to invite interested parties from the immigration community.

The sources said it was decided at that meeting staff in Melnick’s office — who are entirely political — would handle the invitations. So, yes, the minister invited people to the event. But no, it is not correct to say the premier’s senior staff was not involved.

This is indicative of the trouble generated by the Selinger government’s semantic contortions throughout this story. The premier and others who have waded into the fray have made statements that were somewhat right, but not entirely true. Details have been revealed, but others were concealed.

The result is an incident in the legislature that was much ado about nothing has been buffed and polished into a full-blown political scandal. This was an event planned by the government at the highest levels and managed, for the most part, by the minister responsible for the file. Why the NDP government did not say this clearly and early on is anyone’s guess.

This is no longer a story about invitations to a debate. It’s a story about Selinger’s capacity to lead, and the ethical and moral character of this government. And whether prominent members of the government abused the truth in an effort to make a tiny issue go away, rather than just confronting it head on.

There is so much about Melnick’s new version of events that doesn’t ring true. The timelines don’t match up well, and she continues to cling to the idea that temporary amnesia, brought on by a chronic disease, prompted her into a lie.

In turning the tables on her former political masters, Melnick has revealed a lot about the inner workings of the Selinger government that have nothing to do with immigration, resolutions or invitations. It does, however, paint a picture of a government now suffering for its capacity to be too cute for its own good.

 

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 4, 2014 A5

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