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There's been little progress in uniting the NDP since leadership turmoil

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 28/3/2015 (791 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Three weeks after winning the right to lead New Democrats into the next election, Premier Greg Selinger appears to have made little progress in healing the wounds within his government.

In fact, rather than leading the effort, he appears content to let his deeply divided caucus do the heavy lifting.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS files
Dissident MLAs (from left) Andrew Swan, Theresa Oswald, Jennifer Howard, Erin Selby and Stan Struthers are still in the NDP doghouse.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS files Dissident MLAs (from left) Andrew Swan, Theresa Oswald, Jennifer Howard, Erin Selby and Stan Struthers are still in the NDP doghouse.

The NDP has a month to right its ship before it presents a new budget April 30, but there is no guarantee that will happen by the end of next month -- if ever.

"The process is advancing nicely," Selinger maintained, as he left a two-hour caucus meeting Friday morning. "There's absolutely no guarantees, but there is a great willingness for people to come together."

But others within the party question that rosy assessment.

Selinger hung on to his leadership by the narrowest of margins -- 33 votes -- over rival Theresa Oswald at the NDP leadership convention March 8.

He almost immediately promised to unite a party badly divided by the leadership contest and the decision last fall by five former cabinet ministers, including Oswald, to call on him to step down.

'You know when you want someone to break up with you, but you don't want to do it? So you... don't include them in anything, you don't talk to them very much and finally they break up with you? I think he's taken that approach... '

-- NDP source, of Selinger's treatment of dissident MLAs

Since then, he's had one-on-one meetings or telephone conversations with almost all of his 35 MLAs, but it appears these sessions have done little to advance the process of reconciliation.

"There are resources available to help people," said Selinger, referring to the fact party stalwarts such as former MLAs Bill Blaikie and Jean Friesen have been tasked to act as go-betweens for the caucus and the dissident MLAs.

"And people have the choice of whether they want to take advantage of that. But caucus wants very much to be in charge of its own process. That's something that everybody wants to respect. Caucus wants to take responsibility for their own ability to work together, and they were doing that today."

But party sources say the process is going nowhere. They say the premier has given a veto to any caucus member who opposes the return of Oswald and six other NDP MLAs who have crossed Selinger in the past.

"It means they won't be back together until everyone decides they want to work together," one source said.

NDP MLAs Andrew Swan, Erin Selby, Jennifer Howard, Stan Struthers, Clarence Pettersen, Christine Melnick and Oswald will continue to represent their ridings, but they won't be allowed to participate in caucus meetings.

Sources say driving the opposition to the return of the dissident MLAs -- especially the five former cabinet ministers who called on Selinger last fall to step down -- are backbenchers Rob Altemeyer (Wolseley) and Dave Gaudreau (St. Norbert), both of whom were vehement in their criticisms of Oswald and the others during the leadership campaign.

Altemeyer left the meeting without comment on Friday, while Gaudreau only said, "Everybody's happy."

During the meeting, sources said, NDP house leader Dave Chomiak was criticized when it was learned he had consulted with former NDP house leaders Howard and Swan. Under normal circumstances, meeting with a former house leader about an upcoming legislative session would not be seen as a sin, but in these times any communication with dissident MLAs is an offence.

Leaving the caucus meeting Friday, Chomiak declined to comment.

"Go Byfuglien," he said in reference to the Winnipeg Jets defenceman Dustin Byfuglien.

Some of the dissident MLAs -- including Swan and Howard -- have said they intend to run as New Democrats in the next election. But some worry their candidacy might be challenged.

"That's a party process," Selinger said when asked if he would oppose their nominations. "We do believe that everybody is going to have the opportunity to seek a nomination. And that process will unfold through the party mechanisms."

The apparent lack of a reconciliation plan emanating from the premier's office is deeply troubling to some New Democrats.

"The only plan that seemed to be given any thought heading into the leadership convention was who he'd fire Monday morning," an NDP source said, referring to the terminations of three senior staffers who had worked for Oswald's campaign. (A Selinger spokesman has said the three departed by mutual agreement.)

Selinger appears to be sending a message to dissidents by his own lack of enthusiasm for reconciliation, the party source added.

"You know when you want someone to break up with you, but you don't want to do it? So you... don't include them in anything, you don't talk to them very much and finally they break up with you?

"I think he's taken that approach, which is really consistent with his personality. Shut them out, freeze them out and make them feel like they're nothing. And then hopefully some of them may go on to other things. And then he's not seen as the bad guy."

Winnipeg political scientist Paul Thomas said the process of reconciliation within the NDP must start with Selinger.

Thomas said it may be asking too much of a divided caucus to, "as a sort of group exercise," resolve "deeply personal and emotional issues" of mistrust.

"It really comes down to the leader saying, 'This is my suggestion for how we bring this about. I'm going to work with you one-on-one. We want you back in caucus. But under certain conditions. You don't get a free pass for what's gone on,' " he said.

If Selinger were to be successful in bringing the dissidents back into the fold, it would reflect well upon his leadership, Thomas said.

And the premier doesn't have a lot of time to get his house in order, the political scientist added. Once the new legislative sitting begins, the Conservative Opposition will have a field day with the NDP's internal troubles if a resolution is not in place by then, he said.

This year's legislative start-up date is almost four weeks later than usual.

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

Read more by Larry Kusch and Bruce Owen.

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