12/12/2013 04:28 EST | Updated 02/11/2014 05:59 EST

Liberal says Manitoba premier must answer questions on staged immigration event

WINNIPEG - Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger did not directly answer questions Thursday about whether one of his former cabinet ministers was untruthful about an orchestrated debate at the legislature.

Selinger said his government was still going over a report issued a day earlier by provincial ombudsman Mel Holley, who said Christine Melnick was behind an effort to fill the legislature's public gallery with immigrants and support agency workers last year.

"We will take a careful look at the report ... and we will make sure things are done properly," Selinger said.

Liberal legislature member Jon Gerrard said Melnick misled the public and the legislature last year by denying she was behind the effort. He said it's now up to Selinger, who demoted Melnick from cabinet in October, to answer questions.

"The premier has to show some accountability here. The premier is responsible for the actions of his ministers."

The controversy dates back to April 19, 2012, when Melnick, the province's immigration minister at the time, scheduled a legislature debate on a resolution criticizing the federal government's plan to take over some immigration programs run by the province.

The previous day, assistant deputy minister Ben Rempel had issued an email to 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.

The Opposition Progressive Conservatives immediately accused the government of politicizing the civil service to orchestrate a show of support for the government. The Tories repeatedly asked Melnick and Selinger whether a politician had told Rempel to send the email.

Melnick said in a media interview that she was not behind it. In question period, both Melnick and Selinger deflected the question, saying that Rempel was simply responding to questions from immigrant service agencies that were worried about the federal takeover.

The ombudsman's report said Melnick has admitted to directing Rempel to send the email. It also revealed that many people in the department were involved in distributing the email to immigrant service agencies and others. In total, 500 people received the electronic invitation to the legislature, the report said.

Holley said Rempel did not break any rules, but he found that the scenario in which he was directed by a politician to invite groups to a legislature debate "clearly gave rise to the perception of partisanship."

Selinger was asked Thursday why no one in government corrected Melnick's initial denial about being involved and why the public was never told what happened prior to the ombudsman's report.

"The report, in my view, has said that (Rempel) did not do anything unprofessional, but would benefit by some additional guidelines on the interface between civil servants and elected people. We will take that advice seriously," the premier said.

"I've answered your questions. Thank you for them."

The ombudsman's report has suggested a new set of guidelines for politicians and their staff for how they give directions to civil servants so as to avoid the perception of partisanship. The government has promised to act on the idea.

The province has had a draft version of the ombudsman's report for a month. It was given to the government in early November so that it could respond, Holley said Thursday.

Melnick was one of three people removed from cabinet during Selinger's most recent shuffle. She declined an interview request earlier this week through an assistant, who referred questions to the government's press secretaries.