01/07/2015 01:51 EST | Updated 03/09/2015 05:59 EDT

Manitoba NDP leadership candidate makes another anti-poverty promise

WINNIPEG - Former Manitoba cabinet minister Theresa Oswald promised another anti-poverty initiative Wednesday in her bid to oust Premier Greg Selinger and rejected accusations she has changed her political stripes for the NDP leadership race.

"This announcement today, and quite honestly how I've comported myself through my political career, has been all about governing for those that have the least," Oswald said after promising increased funding for social enterprises — small community-based business groups that offer opportunities to low-income earners.

Oswald was one of five cabinet ministers who resigned in November after questioning Selinger's leadership as the NDP government sagged in opinion polls. The New Democrats have organized a leadership contest for March 8 to try to end the infighting. Oswald was the first contestant in the race.

She served for seven years as health minister and, more recently, as minister of jobs and the economy. Since entering the race, she has veered away from some government policies in favour of a more aggressive social agenda.

Oswald has promised a tax rebate for low-income earners to counter the 2013 increase in the provincial sales tax, and has said she would postpone the government's current plan to balance the budget by 2016.

She has also promised to immediately increase the housing allowance for welfare recipients to 75 per cent of market value rental rates — something the Opposition Progressive Conservative have long pushed for. When Oswald was the economy minister, she said she would phase in the allowance over four years.

On Wednesday, she promised $2.5 million a year in new spending on loan guarantees, grants and business planning advice for social enterprises, as well as increased funding for certain social enterprise projects, such as urban housing renewal.

She also said she would set up a special community court for inner-city Winnipeg to try to divert more people from jail.

Oswald's agenda since entering the leadership race could be partly strategic, suggested one political analyst.

Royce Koop, who teaches political science at the University of Manitoba, said the suburban-dwelling Oswald may be targeting traditional NDP strongholds in Winnipeg's poorer neighbourhoods to boost her chances in the leadership vote.

"She might kind of feel that ... she has those suburban votes, if not locked up, then she's comfortable with them," Koop said.

"She's breaking away and moving into areas where she doesn't have natural supporters."

Traditional NDP strongholds are key to the leadership race. Under the party's constitution, each constituency is granted a number of delegates based on how many party members live there — the more NDP members an area has, the more delegates it can send to the March 8 meeting.

Selinger, who served as finance minister for a decade before becoming premier in 2009, is likely to have a natural advantage in the inner city, Koop said. Selinger was a social worker in the area before entering politics and comes from the social activist side of the NDP.

Also in the race is Steve Ashton, a longtime cabinet minister who ran against Selinger for the leadership in 2009 but stayed away from the caucus coup that erupted last fall. One of Ashton's key supporters, backbencher Dave Gaudreau, has accused Oswald of shifting to the political left for the leadership race.

Gaudreau accused Oswald of rejecting calls last year from him and other New Democrats to raise the welfare housing allowance more rapidly. Oswald denied the accusation and said she has long worked to improve social programs.

"The criticism, I think, in the rough-and-tumble play of a leadership race, it just isn't borne out in the facts."

Oswald said she fought against a push for private services in health care and has supported expanded child care and other programs since being elected in 2003.

Oswald, Ashton and Selinger had until midnight Tuesday to get their supporters to sign up for NDP memberships in time for the vote. Party officials were still tallying the submissions Wednesday afternoon.