Acrimony, accusations and a pension promise in Manitoba NDP leadership campaign

WINNIPEG — There were more signs of turmoil within Manitoba’s governing New Democrats Sunday — a party trying to find a civil resolution to an internal revolt against Premier Greg Selinger.

The latest volley in the war of words came on the weekend from Rob Altemeyer, a longtime backbencher who has been critical of the five former cabinet ministers who suggested in November that Selinger resign. One of the five, Theresa Oswald, is now leading the coup and running against Selinger in a leadership contest set for March 8.

In a letter to NDP members in his Wolesley constituency, Altemeyer accused the former ministers, and government staffers who have recently taken leave from their jobs to work for Oswald, of abandoning the government.

“It is never a good thing to abandon your post in a time of need. Yet the five (former ministers)decided that just prior to our throne speech was a good time to resign,” Altemeyer wrote.

“More recently, with a crucial budget due in the spring, many senior political staff have simultaneously taken ‘vacation time’ to go work on Theresa Oswald’s leadership campaign. It is an appalling abdication of responsibility in both instances.”

Oswald, who has served as minister of health and of jobs and the economy, said Sunday she wants to keep the debate respectful, and said staff working for her campaign are only using vacation time they’re entitled to.

“March the 9th is going to come, and we’ll all need to come together … and so I think the best thing for all of us is to stay above the fray.”

Oswald’s campaign has attracted some people who were Selinger’s top advisers until the revolt erupted, including Anna Rothney, head of the government’s priorities and planning cabinet committee. Other workers who were part of Selinger’s daily briefings are also on leave and working for Oswald, leaving Selinger to find replacements or leave key positions open.

Altemeyer said he had not yet chosen which candidate to back, but said it would not be Oswald. That leaves him to pick between Selinger and Steve Ashton, a former infrastructure minister who was not part of the revolt.

The NDP is also facing internal wrangling over how the March 8 leadership vote will be conducted. Some 2,000 delegates are expected to take part, and the party executive decided Saturday that delegates will have to be at the Winnipeg convention in order to vote.

That upset Steve Ashton’s camp. Ashton, who represents the Thompson constituency in northern Manitoba, wanted options such as mail-in ballots or satellite convention offices for people in remote communities.

“The cost for a northern delegate to (be) present in Winnipeg in some cases is a drive of 1,000 kilometres or a flight, and on top of that hotel … plus food, child care as the case may be,” Ashton campaign spokesman Christopher Sanderson said Sunday.

The party subsidizes some of the cost but it is “nowhere near enough”, according to Tyler Duncan, a member of the NDP council, which is being asked to review the executive’s decision.

“For an entire section of this province to not be allowed to elect the next leader of the NDP, the next premier of Manitoba, is borderline discrimination to northern people.”

Oswald and a spokesperson for Selinger said their respective campaigns also want the decision changed. The council is expected to meet as early as next weekend to discuss the matter.

The three candidates had until Jan. 6 to sell memberships to potential supporters. They are now reaching out to members in each constituency who will elect delegates for the convention.

The only candidate making a campaign promise Sunday was Oswald, who said she would implement a provincial pension plan to top up the Canada Pension Plan. It would be mandatory for all workers under provincial jurisdiction who are not covered by a company pension plan, and be funded jointly by workers and their employers.

“Benefits have not kept pace with need, and fewer and fewer working families are saving enough to fund their retirement,” Oswald told reporters.

Oswald said she envisions a plan similar to one being introduced in Ontario. Workers and employers there will each contribute 1.9 per cent of the employee’s annual earnings, to a maximum of $1,643. Critics have called it a tax grab that will squeeze businesses and cost jobs.

Oswald said the numbers in Manitoba may be different, and such details would only be worked out after consultations with business and labour groups.

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