POLITICS

Greg Selinger's Manitoba's NDP Government Returns, Divided, To Chamber

11/19/2014 04:38 EST | Updated 01/19/2015 05:59 EST
WINNIPEG - Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger is fighting for his political life as he enters a new legislature session Thursday with an open revolt in his NDP caucus, near-record low polling numbers and untested cabinet ministers.

Even to get through the two-week fall sitting, Selinger will be relying on support in the chamber from five former cabinet ministers who recently resigned after questioning his leadership. They remain in caucus but are no longer allowed to attend caucus meetings or have any input.

There appears to have been very little communication between Selinger's team and the rebels, who will still be expected to sit in the chamber at their assigned times and vote with the NDP majority. They were moved out of the NDP's section on the second floor of the legislature this week and are now in offices in the southeast corner of the building.

"There has been contact, I think it was indicated last week by our caucus chair (Matt Wiebe)," government house leader Steve Ashton said earlier this week.

"The key person that has the direct contact on a daily basis with a (legislature member) is obviously the whip and we will have a new whip in place prior to the sitting on Thursday."

Until recently, the NDP whip was long-time backbencher Greg Dewar. But he was named finance minister earlier this month in a shuffle prompted by the rebels' resignations.

Selinger has been under fire for weeks, after the five said he should consider resigning in light of low opinion polls and continuing public anger over last year's increase in the provincial sales tax. The group included some of the government's top ministers — Jennifer Howard in finance, Andrew Swan in justice and Erin Selby in health — who have been replaced by less-experienced politicians.

Selinger has said he plans to stay on as premier and lead the party into the April 2016 election. He has also challenged his critics to run against him at the NDP's annual convention in March under a little-used clause in the party's constitution. The executive is trying to hammer out ground rules for the contest.

Selinger appears to be "in survival mode," said Paul Thomas, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Manitoba.

"Life is not normal, to any extent, on Broadway," he said, referring to the street in front of the legislature.

Selinger has recently replaced his chief of staff, has hired a new chief of communications and has become less available to the media.

The Opposition Progressive Conservatives plan to put forward a non-confidence motion to try to bring down the government. But it is unlikely to pass, as the former cabinet ministers have said they will vote with the government because their issue is with Selinger and not the party.

The NDP has 36 of the 57 legislature seats. That includes the five cabinet ministers who resigned and two other caucus members who have run afoul of Selinger. The PCs have 19, the Liberals have one and there is one vacant seat.

The legislature session may see some new labour-friendly initiatives to try to shore up union support for Selinger in the leadership contest, Thomas said. Labour groups not only provide a lot of volunteers for the NDP, they are also given blocks of votes in the leadership race, with specific amounts allotted according to each group's membership.

"I think there are pressures to make sure that you keep as many of those people (as possible) happy," Thomas said.

Selinger had the backing of most labour groups when he first ran for leader in 2009, even though he opposed promises by his competitor — the same Steve Ashton who is now house leader. Ashton said during the race that he would ban replacement workers during strikes. He also promised to make it easier for workers to unionize by lowering the threshold for automatic certification to 50 per cent from 65.

The government has also been under pressure of late to provide more help for universities and colleges. It cut in half a promised five per cent funding increase last year, and the University of Manitoba is looking at spending cuts top keep its budget in order.

The New Democrats have also faced criticism from post-secondary students for lifting a decade-long tuition freeze in 2009. Fees have since been allowed to grow at the rate of inflation.

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