Tories’ bulletin on political activity has ‘chilling effect’ on civil service Union, academic decry warning to employees of possible conflicts if elections involvement goes beyond voting; ‘is it to scare people into behaving?’

The provincial government is being accused of casting a ‘really unnecessary’ pall on civil servants’ participation in the democratic process.

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The provincial government is being accused of casting a ‘really unnecessary’ pall on civil servants’ participation in the democratic process.

On Wednesday, CONNECT, the weekly bulletin for Manitoba’s public service, reminded employees that a byelection campaign is underway in Thompson and spelled out some obvious rules: not to engage in any aspects of the election process during work hours and not to use any government resources.

It also told workers they “may” have to declare a conflict of interest if they’re involved in any political activities aside from voting.

Brandon University political science professor Kelly Saunders said the directive was unnecessary and does nothing to smooth the province’s rocky relationship with labour.

“Now civil servants are going to be looking over their shoulder saying, ‘Am I being watched? Am I being monitored? Are they suspicious of me? Is that why they’re saying I might be asked to declare my activities?’” Saunders said Wednesday.

“It creates that kind of climate of anxiety and uncertainty. For a premier that really came into office promising that she was going to engage more collaboratively with all sectors of Manitoba society, including the labour sector… this is not sort of ‘walking that walk.’”

For a premier that really came into office promising that she was going to engage more collaboratively with all sectors of Manitoba society, including the labour sector… this is not sort of ‘walking that walk.’” – Kelly Saunders

During the Fort Whyte byelection in March to fill former premier Brian Pallister’s vacant seat, CONNECT informed provincial government employees they “must” disclose their political activity, which prompted the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union to push back.

There’s nothing in the Public Service Act or the province’s conflict of interest policy requiring civil servants to disclose political activity to their employer, the MGEU said.

“The chilling effect of this on the political rights of civil service employees is obvious,” union president Kyle Ross told members.

The union responded to the directive by filing a grievance and asked the publication to formally retract it to ensure employees aren’t left with the impression they have inform supervisors about their political activities.

JESSICA LEE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS “The chilling effect of this on the political rights of civil service employees is obvious,” said Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union president Kyle Ross.

It didn’t retract the directive but softened the “must” to a “may” in Wednesday’s bulletin outlining the rules for civil servants during the current Thompson byelection campaign. Voters in the riding go to the polls June 7 to elect an MLA to fill the seat that has been vacant since December, when NDP childcare, housing, disability and poverty matters critic Danielle Adams died in a highway collision.

During question period Wednesday, NDP labour critic Tom Lindsey asked government services minister Reg Helwer why the province is “interfering with the rights of workers to participate in the democratic process.”

Helwer said participation in elections in Canada is very important and “everybody’s right.”

“We want to make sure that members of the civil service are aware of what they’re able to do and make sure there is no conflict there,” Helwer said.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES “We want to make sure that members of the civil service are aware of what they’re able to do and make sure there is no conflict there,” said PC MLA Reg Helwer.

The bulletin sent to civil servants Wednesday provided a link to the Manitoba government code of conduct’s “Expected Behaviours.”

While employees, with the exception of deputy ministers, have the right to be politically active they “must exercise political rights appropriately,” it said.

“When an election has been called, employees must take further precautions to ensure that they do not undertake any activities that could call into question their non-partisanship or which could give rise to criticism that public resources are being used for partisan purposes.”

Lindsey asked the minister to retract the directive and guarantee workers’ democratic rights are respected.

“Civil servants have a right to freedom of association and if they want to attend a nomination meeting or deliver flyers for a political candidate that should not be any of the government’s business,” the member for Flin Flon said.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES NDP MLA Tom Lindsey asked PC MLA Reg Helwer to retract the directive and guarantee workers’ democratic rights are respected.

BU’s Saunders agreed, and said that telling civil servants they may have to disclose their political activities to their employer was “really unnecessary.”

“It’s really only in those situations where their ability to do their job impartially, from a political perspective, where that could be impaired,” she said.

There are “rare” circumstances — such as running as a candidate — where a civil servant would need to declare their political activity to their employer and take a leave, the professor said, adding she has no idea what motivated the Progressive Conservatives to issue the directive.

“Is it to scare people into behaving when you’re roughly a year out from the next election? Or is it just another example of where they make these kinds of statements that really don’t demonstrate a lot of forethought?” she asked.

“Is it to scare people into behaving when you’re roughly a year out from the next election? Or is it just another example of where they make these kinds of statements that really don’t demonstrate a lot of forethought?” – Kelly Saunders

“Regardless, I think it does send a chilling effect through the civil service. Let’s face it — this government has not exactly been a fan of the civil service. I think of all the sectors where they need to really, truly engage in the more respectful, collaborative way, it would be the civil service. I’m not really sure what’s behind this but I think this was definitely an overreach on their part.”

On Thursday, Helwer’s press secretary said the CONNECT bulletin is published by the Manitoba Public Service Commission, not the government. Helwer is the minister responsible for the Public Service Commission.

Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said Wednesday that civil servants ought to give their employer a “heads-up.” He called out both the current government and the NDP when it was in power for breaking the rules.

“There’s fair bit of hypocrisy out there,” he said. “They’ve continually hired people into government to do party work.”

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

JESSICA LEE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS “The chilling effect of this on the political rights of civil service employees is obvious,” said Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union president Kyle Ross.
Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.

History

Updated on Wednesday, May 25, 2022 7:45 PM CDT: Upper-cases Government Services Minister

Updated on Thursday, May 26, 2022 7:51 PM CDT: Added line to clarify that the CONNECT bulletin is published by the Manitoba Civil Service Commission, not the government

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