12/18/2014 01:32 EST | Updated 02/17/2015 05:59 EST

Assailed Manitoba premier determined to fight to the end to keep NDP leadership

WINNIPEG - Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger says he will fight to the end to keep his job despite record-low poll numbers, opponents within his own ranks and the loss of some key advisers.

Selinger, who is essentially having to reapply to be NDP leader after a caucus revolt, said he does not want to leave.

"I received a mandate from the people of Manitoba to serve their priorities, and that's your objective, is to be here every day to do that and to make sure that we accomplish what we set out to do," Selinger said in a year-end interview this week with The Canadian Press.

"We're getting good results with a strong economy, with a growing population. Let's keep the ball rolling in the right direction, and the way to do that is to have continuity in government."

Selinger has been on the defensive since October when five of his most senior cabinet ministers and a few other party members suggested that he consider quitting in light of low poll numbers and continued public anger over last year's increase in the provincial sales tax.

The ministers resigned from cabinet to sit on the backbenches and one, Theresa Oswald, has all but confirmed she is running to replace Selinger. Oswald said this week she is talking to people and gauging support for a potential campaign.

Selinger has challenged his critics to run against him at the NDP's annual convention March 8 under a little-used section of the party's constitution that allows for a leadership contest at any convention.

Party officials have laid out ground rules for the race that include a $2,000 entry fee, filling out an application and getting 50 signatures of support.

Being premier doesn't exclude Selinger from the requirements and he said he will file nomination papers before the Jan. 6 deadline.

A candidate needs only one vote more than 50 per cent to win. Selinger would not say whether such a narrow margin would be enough for him to feel he could continue.

"I don't want to speculate, but (50 per cent) is the rules, and we'll be following the rules."

The leadership challenge has put a strain on Selinger's government. He parted ways with his chief of staff, Liam Martin, soon after the controversy erupted. Another adviser, Anna Rothney, has taken a leave of absence in part to work on Oswald's expected leadership run, the Winnipeg Free Press reported Thursday.

Selinger let all government staff know last week that they are free to work, outside of office hours, for any leadership candidate without fear of retribution. That means some of his own staff could volunteer for a competitor's campaign.

"We believe everybody should be able to exercise their civil rights as citizens to participate in an electoral leadership contest ... and they will be respected," he said.

The leadership squabble has also led to a further drop in opinion polls. A survey by Angus Reid released earlier this week suggested 17 per cent of Manitobans approve of Selinger's performance as premier. That's down from 30 per cent in September and the lowest rating of any premier in the country.

It's unclear how much support remains within the NDP for Selinger. One political analyst suggests the dismal poll numbers may convince even Selinger supporters that a change in leadership is necessary if the NDP is to have a chance of winning the next election slated for April 2016.

"The momentum is all going in the wrong direction for him at this time," said Paul Thomas, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Manitoba.

Still, Thomas said, Selinger is likely to feel he has to fight his rivals, especially after he scored convincing victories in the last leadership race and provincial election.

"You have to just think, from a distance, that it's pride and perhaps stubbornness. And he's probably thought about it and said, 'Well, two-thirds of the (leadership race) delegates in 2009, a record majority (government) in 2011, and this is the kind of treatment I get?

"'I'm not going to walk away from this. I'm going to stand my ground and make these people fight for it.'"

Selinger said he wants to achieve some of the goals he has set, including more education and apprenticeship programs and completion of planned hydroelectric projects.

"We have an expression that the worst day in government is better than the best day in opposition because you can do things to make a difference."