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'Outsider' Ashton likely to move Manitoba to the left if he becomes premier

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WINNIPEG - It is rare to use the words cabinet minister and outsider in the same sentence.

But Steve Ashton, who could be Manitoba's new premier if he is elected by his party's delegates Saturday, has been both. Ashton, 53, has spent more than half his life as a member of the legislature. He has held a variety of cabinet posts since the NDP took power in 1999, including transportation, water stewardship and emergency measures. He received praise for helping municipalities last spring deal with one of the worst floods in the province's history.

And yet, when he decided several weeks ago to run for the NDP leadership, none of his cabinet colleagues backed him. He would not say why.

"For me, it's not really the relevant question. Do you have support from New Democrats and Manitobans (is relevant)," Ashton said in a recent radio interview.

Ashton has always had a reputation as a lone wolf. He frequently speaks off the cuff and has sometimes mused rather openly about policy ideas.

As conservation minister, he once told reporters he was thinking of putting a recycling levy on electronic equipment. The idea was quickly shot down by Premier Gary Doer, who steps down Saturday to become Canada's ambassador to the United States.

His supporters say Ashton has always had his eye on the premier's chair, and that may have rubbed other caucus members the wrong way.

"A lot of people say he's not a team player," said Tom Nevakshonoff, one of several backbenchers who support Ashton's leadership bid. "Well, maybe that's because he's been a leader-in-waiting and he has always offered an alternative course of action within our caucus."

Ashton is expected to tilt the NDP away from the centre of the political spectrum - where Doer carefully positioned the party to win three successive majorities - toward the left. He has promised new union-friendly laws, including a ban on replacement workers during strikes and lockouts, and new money for social programs and rapid transit.

He has also promised to bring back a controversial freeze on post-secondary tuition, which started in 1999 but ended in September. Students say the freeze is needed to keep Manitoba's rates among the lowest in the country. University administrators, however, complain the freeze has deprived them of much-needed money.

Ashton's interest in labour politics came early. He was born in England but moved to the northern mining city of Thompson, Man., as a child with his family. As a university student working in the local Inco mine, he found himself on the picket line.

"One of the things I saw is the degree to which no one wants to be on a picket line," Ashton said. "For me, it's really important to work to resolve labour disputes when they do occur and make sure that people don't have to be on a picket line."

He served as president of the University of Manitoba students' union in 1978 and 1979, and showed a definite passion for politics. His political science professor, Paul Thomas, remembers Ashton becoming so worked up while debating an issue one day, he had to walk out of the classroom.

"Ashton felt he was either outnumbered or outwitted and he was upset by it."

Ashton was elected to the legislature in 1981 and has been re-elected ever since, making him the longest-serving current legislature member.

He gained a profile in 1996, when the Progressive Conservative government pushed through a law to privatize the Crown-owned telephone utility, Manitoba Telephone System. The legislature erupted into chaos as the government changed procedural rules to pass the bill over protest from the opposition.

At one point, when legislature Speaker Louise Dacquay refused to let the opposition speak, Ashton stood in front of her and accused her of "destroying this legislature."

Ashton was appointed to cabinet when the NDP took power in 1999. He has never served in the big portfolios of justice, health or education, but spent time in most of the smaller departments.

While most of the NDP establishment is backing his opponent, Greg Selinger, Ashton has worked the grassroots. He has reached out to students and the labour movement and, more importantly, signed up thousands of new party members by appealing to immigrants.

"That was a key theme for (former NDP premier) Ed Schreyer in 1969. He brought Ukrainian, German, francophone, Metis and Jewish communities into the political structures. They were represented in cabinet, in caucus," he said.

"I want to do much the same for Manitoba in 2009."

Ashton's political bent appears to run in the family. His daughter, Niki, is the NDP member of Parliament for the riding of Churchill. Ashton and his wife, Hari, also have a son, Alexander, who is studying engineering.

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