A senior cabinet minister in the Pallister government says he didn't know the premier ordered staff to hire a private investigator to dig up dirt on NDP Leader Wab Kinew before the last provincial election.
Even if he did know, Finance Minister Scott Fielding says he wouldn't have been part of it.
"I didn't know anything of this," Fielding said.
Fielding made the comments during a news conference Friday about the expansion of the St. James Civic Centre.
"I certainly wasn’t involved in that and this is something I wouldn’t be involved in," said Fielding.
"What I can say is my No. 1 goal is to make sure the economy is rolling along as being minister of finance during a pandemic is a really important job. That’s my focus here.
"Until I have more information, I’m hesitant to make comment on it because I don’t have all the facts," he added.
"We need to take a moment, find out all the information before, you know, making any comments further to that."
The Free Press reported Friday that the Progressive Conservative party hired a private investigator to snoop on Kinew.
Multiple sources said the provincial executive council's most senior staff oversaw the plan. The office is funded by tax dollars to give policy, legislative, communications and other political support to the premier. While these staff members aren't civil servants, and are partisan, they are still paid by the government and they must adhere to guidelines to separate party and electoral business from regular work at the legislature.
Todd MacKay, Prairie director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, said political staff should stick to government work.
"There's a lot of important work for political staff to do when the province is running a big deficit and they shouldn't be wasting time fact-checking the opposition leader's autobiography," said MacKay. "It's good that they didn't waste taxpayers' money on a private investigator, but that sort of thing shouldn't be connected to the legislature.
"There are always grey areas in politics, but this is on the dark charcoal side of the spectrum."
Pallister has not spoken publicly, or been accessible to the media, for at least two weeks and he refused numerous attempts to respond to the issue before the story was published. A news release issued Friday said Pallister would attend a news conference on Tuesday, along with Dr. Brent Roussin, the province's chief public health officer, about the easing of restrictions related to COVID-19.
But a statement from the premier's office on Thursday, which didn't confirm or deny the hiring of the private investigator hiring, did acknowledge it would be inappropriate for executive council staff to engage in partisan activities such as that. The statement added the senior staff who would have been involved in "the alleged matters" no longer work for the government.
On Thursday, Kinew said he wasn't surprised at how far Pallister had gone to dig up dirt on him.
"Using a private investigator is a little bit outside normal practice for Canadian politicians," he said. "The Tories are clearly less interested in debating the real issues and more interested in the politics of personal destruction."
Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said on Friday the scandal shows "Pallister is not fit to lead, but this is not just Pallister alone.
"This is the political culture of the Conservatives. They have never won an election without bending or breaking the rules. Donations to political parties are subsidized.
"It’s not just PC donors who are paying for this, we all are."
Meanwhile, the Manitoba Organization of Faculty Associations called for Pallister's immediate resignation on Friday, pointing to not just his governments push for Bill 33, which it says transforms universities from places of higher learning to "instruments of short-term government economic policy", and Bill 64, which takes away governance of education from school boards to the provincial government, but also for what the premier recently said about residential schools as well as the scandal over the hiring of a private investigator.
"Mr. Pallister has lost the moral authority to lead on these issues with his repeated racist tropes, and outdated and regressive views on colonialism and residential schools," said Scott Forbes in a statement on behalf of the association executive.
"Now he compounds this by using government staff to conduct a personal and political vendetta against an Indigenous leader. He has crossed too many lines and the longer he stays in office, the more the damage grows."
Kevin Rollason is one of the more versatile reporters at the Winnipeg Free Press. Whether it is covering city hall, the law courts, or general reporting, Rollason can be counted on to not only answer the 5 Ws — Who, What, When, Where and Why — but to do it in an interesting and accessible way for readers.