Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Ombudsman outs NDP minister's email fib

She didn't violate any law, he finds

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An NDP cabinet minister instructed a senior civil servant to invite immigration service agencies to the legislature in April 2012 for what turned out to be a showdown between federal Conservative MPs and a provincial government incensed that Ottawa planned to seize control of the delivery of immigrant services.

The revelation came Wednesday with the release of a report by the Manitoba ombudsman into alleged partisan action by the provincial civil service regarding to the dispute.

Then-immigration and multiculturalism minister Christine Melnick had denied she was behind an email by her assistant deputy minister, Ben Rempel, that suggested non-profit, government-funded immigrant service agencies give their staff the afternoon off to attend a debate at the legislature.

The Selinger government had introduced a motion calling on Ottawa to reverse its intention to resume management of federally funded immigration programs in Manitoba and British Columbia.

Four Manitoba Conservative MPs took the unprecedented step of denouncing the NDP inside the legislative building's rotunda while the debate raged inside the legislative chamber.

It wasn't revealed until later that Rempel's email helped mobilize 400 immigrants and immigration workers to attend the session. Melnick defended her deputy's actions but denied she was behind it -- until the ombudsman's office investigated the matter.

"Early in the investigation, we learned from the ADM (Rempel) and other departmental staff that the direction to invite stakeholders to the legislature was given by the minister," acting Ombudsman Mel Holley said in his report.

Holley said at his office's request, Melnick confirmed her role.

"I made clear to my staff that those affected by the federal government's decision should be informed of the legislature debate on April 19th -- and have the opportunity to hear speeches on both sides of the issue," she wrote to Holley.

The ombudsman launched his probe in response to a complaint that Rempel had crossed the line of impartiality expected of civil servants by sending the email invitations.

"Ensuring that civil servants remain neutral in carrying out their responsibilities is of great importance for the effective operation of government," Holley said in his report.

But ultimately he found the civil servant had not breached the Civil Service Act or the Manitoba Civil Service Commission Values and Ethics Guide. He said he found no evidence "the service providers who received the email felt coerced or intimidated to support the government."

Holley said in his report that weighing in on political decisions is outside an ombudsman's jurisdiction.

Melnick was dropped from the provincial cabinet in a ministerial shuffle in October. She couldn't immediately be reached for comment Wednesday.

Opposition Leader Brian Pallister said the government, through Melnick's actions, had relegated the civil service to the "role of puppet (and) political pawn."

"This is unacceptable behaviour and the government needs to do much more than pay lip service to the report of the ombudsman," he said.

The oOmbudsman reported the province has agreed to develop a set of guidelines to assist elected officials and political staff when directing civil servants to avoid the potential for "situations where administrative actions could result in the perception of partisanship" on the part of the bureaucracy.

The only government response Wednesday to Holley's report was a one-line email from a cabinet spokeswoman, which said: "We thank the ombudsman for his thoughtful consideration and we accept the ombudsman('s) conclusion that there was no misconduct."

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 12, 2013 A7

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