05/19/2015 05:31 EDT | Updated 05/19/2016 05:59 EDT

Manitoba premier won't say whether severance pay to former staffers was required

WINNIPEG - Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger refused to answer opposition questions Tuesday about severance packages given to seven of his former advisers.

He cited the need for confidentiality as he declined to reveal whether the $670,000 in total severance pay was required under the workers' contracts, or something simply offered to them as they left.

"My understanding is that employment agreements are confidential matters between the employee and the employer," Selinger said near the end of an hour-long exchange with Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Pallister.

The premier parted ways in recent months with almost all of his top advisers, following an internal revolt last fall that ended with a leadership challenge that Selinger barely survived in March. Many of the advisers worked on the leadership campaign of Theresa Oswald, who came within 33 votes of toppling Selinger.

To date, details of only one severance package have been released — that of Liam Martin, who received $146,000 after less than three years on the job. Details of the others — including Selinger's former caucus director, issues management director, press secretary and more — cannot be disclosed due to legal advice, Selinger told the legislature.

Pallister asked whether the workers were entitled to severance pay under their contract, whether the workers received more than they were legally entitled to, and who advised the premier to keep the details confidential.

Each time, Selinger said he could not respond, and would not name the lawyers who provided the government legal advice.

"We get advice from our HR (human resources) people. They get legal advice, as they believe is necessary, as they proceed through these matters."

Pallister said the secrecy raises questions about whether taxpayers paid more than they should have for departing political staff.

"We can't see a copy of the contracts, even with the relevant personal data removed from it. All of this smacks pretty heavily of coverup."

Selinger said there will be some indication of the severance packages in the government's public accounts, which are issued every September and are required by law.

The books include total earnings by all government workers who earn more than $50,000 a year, and reveal only the total amount paid, including salaries, severance pay and other monetary items.