It appears as if the love-hate relationship between the New Democratic Party and Steve Ashton is going to end in scorched-earth fashion.

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This article was published 7/5/2019 (739 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Opinion

It appears as if the love-hate relationship between the New Democratic Party and Steve Ashton is going to end in scorched-earth fashion.

A former lion of the party who surprisingly lost his seat in the 2016 election, Ashton’s bid to stand as the NDP’s candidate in Thompson again in the next provincial election was derailed when he was informed he had been rejected by the NDP’s candidate selection committee.

An Ashton supporter, outraged that a man who had spent 35 years in the Manitoba legislature could be denied a chance to come back from his 2016 defeat, suggested that the vetting committee was imposing the will of Winnipeg party members on a northern riding. Blair Hudson, a Thompson representative on the party’s provincial council, told The Canadian Press that Ashton’s rejection was orchestrated by current leader Wab Kinew as payback for a bitter 2017 leadership race.

"There’s something amiss here," Hudson told CP.

On the face of it, perhaps there is something wrong about a sudden decision to exclude a man who represented the NDP in northern Manitoba for nearly 40 years. An appeal of the selection committee’s decision was scheduled to be held Tuesday night, the results of which were not available at press time.

 But as is always the case when Ashton is involved, the story is much more complex than either he or his supporters would have others believe.

In defending Ashton and assailing the NDP for its Winnipeg-centric sensibilities, neither Ashton (who has not responded to interview requests) nor Hudson mentioned that the selection committee provided them with a five-page letter outlining the concerns that prompted the decision to reject his application.

Multiple party sources confirmed that letter includes details of a dispute that Ashton had with the Legislative Assembly over office equipment and furniture that apparently was missing when he cleared out of his office in the legislative building in 2016. The sources said the matter has been resolved, but that it took nearly three years.

There are also concerns about tens of thousands of dollars in expenses from Ashton’s two leadership campaigns, and from his 2016 re-election campaign, which were paid using personal funds. Sources said the selection committee suggested that having failed to raise funds legitimately to pay himself back for these expenses, he may have contravened electoral financing laws. 

The sources said the selection committee also referenced the Tiger Dam scandal, where it was revealed in 2015 that Ashton had attempted through improper means to get approval for a $5-million untendered contract for a company that was owned in part by a longtime personal and political friend.

Finally, there were concerns raised about his behaviour in the 2017 leadership race, where it was discovered Ashton had sent anonymous letters to party delegates attacking Wab Kinew, the eventual winner.

The letters, which did not contain any reference to Ashton or his leadership campaign, revealed previously undisclosed personal and legal details about Kinew, including the fact he was charged with domestic assault before he became a politician. The charges were eventually stayed, but the revelation that he had been accused of domestic violence continues to haunt Kinew today.

Does all that justify blackballing him as a potential candidate?

If Ashton were an MLA now, it is unlikely the NDP caucus would expel him for any one of the transgressions listed in that letter. Even taken together, it’s hard to see them as justification for expulsion. But then again, the letter only captures a small portion of Ashton’s transgressions.

There were Ashton’s efforts in 2011 to find supporters to challenge sitting NDP MLAs, likely as a punishment to those who did not support him in 2009 when he lost the leadership to former premier Greg Selinger. The party was forced to move up several nomination meetings where Ashton supporters were organizing campaigns to challenge incumbents. In St. Norbert, they didn’t move fast enough, and incumbent MLA Marilyn Brick decided to retire from politics rather than face Ashton’s candidate. 

Then there is the role he played in helping Selinger retain his leadership in 2015, setting up the colossal defeat at the hands of the Tories in the 2016 election.

Ashton supported Selinger when he battled five dissident cabinet ministers who publicly called for his resignation. Then he ran against Selinger in a special leadership vote. When he lost on the first ballot, he pledged to support challenger Theresa Oswald, but then reneged and instead sent all his delegates home so they could not vote in the second round. It was a betrayal that, along with other factors, helped Selinger retain the leadership.

Ashton has been, over the years, so relentless and ambitious in seeking the leadership that the party had to amend its rules for membership sales and for leadership votes to stop him from flooding the party with suspiciously cultivated instant members.

It is not hard to understand why Ashton would be seeking a comeback. He is a never-say-die politician who simply does not let setbacks such as election or leadership losses dull his appetite for public office.

Having said that, when you combine the contents of the letter from the selection committee with various other acts of duplicity and manipulation, it is also equally easy to understand why the party would try to block him from making a comeback.

Although Ashton remains a man of high profile in northern Manitoba, he is also the man who lost what the NDP thought was an safe seat, in an election where his party needed to retain as many safe seats as possible. After losing in 2016, it is no longer certain he is his party’s best bet to reclaim Thompson.

But that’s the thing about Ashton. He seems to spend so much time figuring out what’s good for Steve, he doesn’t have a lot of time to worry about what’s good for his party.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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