Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Selinger better beware party faithful

Dogged by controversy leading up to NDP convention

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Two years from the next provincial election, Premier Greg Selinger has suddenly found himself scrambling to prove he is still worthy to lead his party and the province.

It's been a fairly unique convergence of events and issues that has put Selinger in such a defensive position.

First, there was the controversy surrounding his sudden decision one year ago to raise the PST to fund infrastructure. Then, this week, Selinger was forced to expel former cabinet minister Christine Melnick after she publicly accused him of using her as a scapegoat.

In one of the worst bits of political coincidence, Selinger must now carry those two millstones into the NDP's annual general meeting this weekend in Winnipeg.

There is no formal leadership vote planned for the AGM, but many believe Selinger's recent difficulties will be on everyone's mind.

Selinger was rocked on Monday when Melnick issued a statement accusing him and senior political staff of using her as a scapegoat in the simmering concern over the use of senior civil servants to organize a rally at the Manitoba legislature in April 2012.

Melnick lied in the legislature when asked if she personally asked a senior civil servant to issue invitations to immigrants and immigration workers to attend a special debate at the legislature.

The debate was on a government resolution condemning Ottawa for taking control of immigrant settlement services.

Melnick claimed this week she was directed by Selinger's senior political staff to organize the invitations for the resolution debate, including her decision to involve an assistant deputy minister in the plan. Selinger continues to dispute these claims and punctuated his feelings on the matter by tossing Melnick from the NDP caucus.

When all of the events of the past two days are examined, Selinger had little choice but to expel Melnick. Her allegations, many of which remain unproven, were an act of mutiny.

However, it's unlikely this act of leadership will quiet the murmurs of doubt about Selinger's performance on this and other files. There will be plenty of murmurs this weekend when he confronts a large, unpredictable meeting of party faithful.

In an interview following his announcement of Melnick's expulsion, Selinger acknowledged there will be party members in attendance this weekend who want answers about the PST, Melnick and other files. Selinger said he can only worry about showing people he knows how to govern "appropriately."

"We'll see," Selinger said when asked if he has to win back the trust of his party. "I'm certainly going to be open to whatever the members ask me. I think the members no doubt want to be reassured that we're doing the right things and that we have the right focus."

Make no mistake about it, this is a critical moment in Selinger's tenure as leader.

After taking over from his predecessor, Gary Doer, in 2009, Selinger emerged victorious in his first general election as leader, adding to his majority even though the Progressive Conservatives saw huge gains in popular vote.

There are many within the party who believe that electoral result was more lucky than good. Either way, there has been a lingering concern that somehow Selinger dodged a bullet.

This time around, both the challenge from the opposition and skepticism about his government's ability to continue leading exist at heightened levels. That is why the Melnick debacle has become such a concern for Selinger and his inner circle. It is an added burden at a time when he is already straining under the weight of doubt.

Selinger must be much better in fending off his critics. To date, when pressed to defend himself, the premier has shown an unfortunate tendency to bog down in the minute details of each controversy. This produces overly complex answers to simple questions that, ultimately, lead to even more allegations he is a stranger to the truth.

For example, Selinger continued on Tuesday to maintain his senior political staff had no role in directing Melnick on how to organize the rally at the legislature.

In fact, his staff were involved in the broad plans for the event. His insistence on making that distinction tends to enhance, rather than reduce, concerns he is being untruthful.

Party gatherings can be fraught with peril even in good times. However, this weekend Selinger will be facing a membership that is a bit more volatile than they have been in some time.

These are people who, over the past 14 years, have developed a taste for governing.

That means they are unlikely to demonstrate much patience if they see the current leader is threatening that run.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 5, 2014 A5


Updated on Wednesday, February 5, 2014 at 7:36 AM CST: adds video

8:38 AM: Corrects typo

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