Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Selinger's failing festers

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Manitoba's NDP government has been struggling to untangle a public relations pretzel for nearly two years without a lot of success, but Premier Greg Selinger and his ministers did a credible job Tuesday in explaining the confusing web of allegations. If they had acted long ago, however, the odour of doubt and lingering suspicion might have been less sniffy.

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There were several missed opportunities to explain the circumstances that caused an assistant deputy minister in the Department of Immigration to distribute a controversial email inviting civil servants and various stakeholders to a debate in the legislature in April 2012.

The email sparked an investigation by the Manitoba Ombudsman following a complaint the civil servant had acted in a partisan manner, either on his own initiative, or at the urging of the immigration minister at the time, Christine Melnick.

The various issues became immensely more complicated when Ms. Melnick initially denied instructing the civil servant, Ben Rempel, to distribute the email.

Shortly after the ombudsman began his investigation, however, the minister admitted she had directed Mr. Rempel to send the email.

Mr. Selinger was also informed of the deceit, but it remained a secret until the ombudsman's report was tabled last December, some 16 months after the incident.

The premier should have disclosed the new information immediately or ordered Ms. Melnick to do so, rather than waiting for the report to be released.

Not only had the public been deceived, Ms. Melnick had also misled the legislature in denying her personal role, a breach of the Legislative Assembly Act.

And during this entire period, Mr. Rempel was hung out to dry and left to listen silently as the opposition questioned his judgment and ethics. Mr. Selinger had a duty to remove that stain as quickly as possible and he has no excuse for not doing so.

Ms. Melnick has since further confused matters by claiming she was directed by NDP political staff to order Mr. Rempel to rally support for the government's motion on immigration.

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The validity of her allegations is questionable because of her claim she suffered memory loss due to undiagnosed diabetes, but so far she has not produced hard evidence she was pushed.

What is clear, finally, is political staff helped lead the effort to create a spectacle of support for the NDP's motion. Even House Leader Andrew Swan said Tuesday he called people in his constituency to inform them of the debate and request their presence at the legislature.

Ms. Melnick was undoubtedly told to get the word out, but Mr. Selinger says she was never ordered to direct her assistant deputy minister to do anything. If she or her personal staff had sent the email, the question of the independence of the civil service would never have surfaced.

An NDP spokesman said it was "no secret" the government was orchestrating an event -- no secret, that is, to the NDP. As far as the opposition, the media and the public were concerned, Ms. Melnick's department acted alone.

If the breadth of the NDP effort had been properly disclosed when the controversy first erupted, it would have provided a context that has been missing. It's also possible Ms. Melnick believed she was supposed to enlist the support of Mr. Rempel, even if no one mentioned his name.

Ms. Melnick appears to have been the author of her own misfortune, but the premier ensured the controversy continued to fester. He could easily have disclosed her misrepresentation (or misunderstanding) of the facts without jeopardizing the ombudsman's consideration of the issues surrounding the proper relationship between politicians and civil servants. But he didn't. That's his failing and he must wear it.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 5, 2014 A8


Updated on Wednesday, February 5, 2014 at 7:40 AM CST: adds image

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