WINNIPEG – Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger declined to answer questions on the weekend about the growing controversy over accusations one of his former ministers lied in the legislature.
After leaving a tribute to Nelson Mandela on Saturday, Selinger rejected a request for an interview about when he became aware that Christine Melnick had in fact told a senior bureaucrat to invite immigrants and immigrant service groups to the legislature during a debate.
The revelation, contained in a report from the provincial ombudsman last Wednesday, contradicts what Melnick told the legislature last year and has prompted calls for an inquiry.
Opposition Progressive Conservative leader Brian Pallister said Selinger had to have known that Melnick, when she was immigration minister, was not telling the truth.
“He failed to act on the certain knowledge that his minister had misled the people of the province, misled the house, broke her oath,” Pallister said on the weekend.
“This calls for an inquiry and (Melnick) should be removed or at least suspended from her position in caucus until a committee of the house has had a chance to review all the facts.”
The controversy stems from a legislature debate on April 19, 2012. Melnick had introduced a resolution criticizing the federal government’s plan to take over some immigration programs run by the province.
The previous day, her assistant deputy minister Ben Rempel had issued an email to government-funded immigrant service agencies telling them of the event and saying that people should feel free to come — even if it meant taking the afternoon off work. More than 400 people packed the public gallery and an overflow room.
The Tory Opposition immediately accused the government of politicizing the civil service and rounding up immigrants to orchestrate a show of support for the government. It also said government-funded agencies and immigrants would feel pressured to obey the request to attend.
The Opposition repeatedly asked Melnick and Selinger whether a politician had told Rempel to send the email. When Melnick appeared before a budget estimates committee on May 30 of last year, she denied being behind the plan.
“There was no direction to send this email,” Melnick responded, according to legislature Hansard.
Provincial ombudsman Mel Holley issued a report last Wednesday that said Melnick did in fact direct her assistant deputy minister to send the emails. Aided by other bureaucrats, Rempel issued the emails to some 500 people.
Holley’s report said the action “clearly gave rise to the perception of partisanship” in the civil service.
The revelation has prompted the Tories to call for a legislature committee inquiry. Under the Legislative Assembly Act, giving misleading evidence to the legislature or a committee is an offence that can lead to imprisonment.
The NDP government has tried to put an end to the controversy while at the same time not answering specific questions.
Melnick has repeatedly declined interview requests. She issued a short written apology Friday in which she said “the explanation I provided in the house did not properly convey the direction I had given, and for that, I apologize.”
Selinger has refused so far to provide specific answers. He told reporters Thursday the government was still reviewing the ombudsman’s report. The government had received a draft version a month earlier.
Government house leader Andrew Swan told reporters Friday that Melnick’s apology has put the matter to rest, but the opposition is unlikely to let the issue drop. Swan also did not answer specific questions about when the premier or others became aware that Melnick had not been truthful in the legislature.
While Melnick was the only government minister to specifically deny that she ordered her assistant deputy minister to send out the email invitations, Selinger’s answers in question period at the time alluded to the assistant deputy minister having acted on his own.
On May 2, 2012, Selinger told the legislature “the public servant in question acted in the belief that he was doing what was in the best of all interests of Manitobans,” according to Hansard.
The following day, he answered another question with “the civil servant took actions in the context of a non-partisan program, which benefits all of Manitoba”.
Melnick is not the first politician to apologize for misleading committee testimony.
Last year, then-finance minister Stan Struthers told another legislature committee he never received free tickets to National Hockey League games. Within days, it was revealed that he had been given tickets to Winnipeg Jets games by Red River College and the Manitoba Homebuilders Association.
Struthers apologized in the legislature and was not sanctioned by the premier.
Melnick was one of three ministers demoted to the back benches in a cabinet shuffle in October. She continues to sit in the NDP caucus and represent the Riel constituency in south Winnipeg.