Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Melnick decision 'necessary,' Selinger tells faithful

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It took Premier Greg Selinger all of 42 seconds in a speech to the NDP party faithful Friday night to confront the elephant in the room -- his decision this week to kick a former cabinet minister out of his caucus.

He faced up to the fact he had ousted Riel MLA Christine Melnick quickly -- and then didn't return to the subject again in a 20-minute speech in which he described himself as a "fighter" and his party as underdogs in the next election.

"This week I had to make a tough decision to remove someone from caucus. And I did it after we consulted with the caucus and they supported that decision," he told the party's annual general meeting.

"And I know it hasn't been easy on any of us in this room. But it was a necessary decision so that we could stay focused on the priorities of Manitobans."

Speaking without notes and with most of his caucus standing behind him, Selinger addressed the issues he felt the party needs to concentrate on to win the next election -- infrastructure, health care and education among them.

He painted the Conservatives under Brian Pallister as a group of cost-cutters who would institute two-tier health care in Manitoba, giving the rich the best care, and cut frontline services.

"Brian Pallister is a serious threat, but I'm a fighter and you're fighters and this caucus is full of fighters," he told the crowd, which gave him a rousing ovation when he entered the Canad Inns Polo Park ballroom.

Selinger stuck to familiar themes: the need to build up the province's infrastructure, including flood-proofing communities along the Assiniboine River, the importance of continued investments in health and education and the need for expansion of hydro-electric power generation in northern Manitoba.

Two recent studies have questioned the necessity of building two more dams in the north, but Selinger seemed determined to see Manitoba Hydro carry out its expensive plans.

"If we don't build Manitoba Hydro, we face the prospect of running out of power in the next 10 to 12 years, and then we will have to import power like natural gas. Why do we want to create jobs elsewhere like the opposition party wants to do?" the premier said. "We'll show that there's customers who want that power as we go forward."

Afterwards, Selinger said he addressed the Melnick affair early because it could not be ignored.

"It's a reality. It's something that we had to deal with this week and people need to know we addressed it."

On Monday, Melnick, who was removed from cabinet in October, broke ranks with her caucus by criticizing the premier and his senior staff, accusing them of hanging her out to dry over the fallout from a controversial event at the legislature in 2012. The premier turfed her from caucus the next day.

Melnick had intended to attend the weekend convention, but was contacted by a party member asking her not to come, as it would cause division at the meeting and potentially hurt her reputation, a source said.

The decision to expel Melnick was not unanimous among caucus members, as a small handful of MLAs argued she was a longtime NDP member deserving of better treatment, the source said.

Federal NDP Leader Tom Mulcair addresses the meeting this morning.

Party members will debate dozens of policy resolutions gleaned from close to 200 motions submitted before the convention. Among the resolutions are calls for an increase in rental allowances to welfare recipients and a proposed junk-food tax.

The convention comes as the NDP, down in popular support, is trying to rev itself up to win a fifth term in office in the spring of 2016. The convention is to also see the unveiling of a new TV attack ad against Pallister. You can view the ad here.

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca bruce.owen@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 8, 2014 A4

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Updated on Saturday, February 8, 2014 at 12:35 PM CST: added video url

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