04/26/2012 03:15 EDT | Updated 06/26/2012 05:12 EDT

Manitoba bureaucrat's email may have pressured workers, but did not break rules

WINNIPEG - Manitoba government workers and immigrant groups who received a controversial email from a senior bureaucrat suggesting they attend a debate may have felt undue pressure, but the email did not constitute a violation of opposition rights, legislature Speaker Daryl Reid ruled Thursday.

Reid has rejected a complaint from the Opposition Progressive Conservatives stemming from a debate on immigration last week. Hundreds of immigrants and government-funded non-profit agency workers filled the public gallery to show support for a government motion that criticized federal changes to immigration programs.

The Tories cried foul because the immigration department's assistant deputy minister, Ben Rempel, had sent out an email the previous day, suggesting agency workers and immigrants feel free to take the afternoon off to watch the debate. The Tories filed a complaint, alleging the NDP was politicizing the civil service and pressuring immigrants to support the government.

"Whether that was indeed an abuse of power will no doubt be an item of debate between members, but it is not a violation of parliamentary privilege," Reid said in his ruling.

"It was contended that some of the government staff who received the communication ... felt intimidated. This could be the case, however, it must be noted that government staff are not protected by parliamentary privilege."

The Tories' complaint was a point of privilege — an allegation that the government's action inhibited the opposition's ability to do its job. The email does not fall under the category of a point of privilege, Reid ruled.

The Tories said the government won on a technicality and stood by their accusation.

"(Rempel) gave permission and, in fact, encouraged people to leave their jobs to come down to the legislature," Tory House leader Mavis Taillieu said.

But the NDP's house leader said Rempel was simply responding to requests from immigrant groups for information.

"People consistently communicate what's happening in the legislature. I certainly don't expect my constituents to read the order paper and know when something that they might be interested in is happening," NDP House leader Jennifer Howard said.

The controversy over last Thursday's debate shows no sign of fading. Shortly before the Speaker's ruling, the Tories filed another complaint, alleging the NDP stacked the public gallery with supporters that day and prevented opposition supporters from getting in.

"One of our staff went to security and requested some 25 passes to the gallery for our guests from the public," Taillieu said.

"She was rewarded with those 25 passes, and yet within approximately 10 minutes, a staff person from security phoned her and said that they would have to get those passes back."

The government said it too had passes to the public gallery revoked, because security wanted passes available for the general public.

"We had been given 40 passes for security that day and then they came and asked for them back," Howard said.

The legislature Speaker is expected to rule on the latest complaint next week.