Manitoba NDP still divided 1 year after failed rebellion against Greg Selinger

Political divisions continue to plague Manitoba's governing New Democrats just weeks ahead of the provincial election and on the one year anniversary of the day NDP Leader Greg Selinger clung to power by the narrowest of margins.

'We tried our best to avoid an electoral disaster,' says rebel NDP MLA Stan Struthers

Tuesday marks one year since Greg Selinger defeated the so-called "gang of five" to stay on as leader of the Manitoba NDP. (Chris Glover/CBC)

Political divisions continue to plague Manitoba's governing New Democrats just weeks ahead of the provincial election and on the one year anniversary of the day NDP Leader Greg Selinger clung to power by the narrowest of margins.

After 12 months to reflect on the failed rebellion against Selinger, Dauphin MLA Stan Struthers, one of the so-called 'gang of five,' said he wouldn't have done anything differently.

"We just didn't get up one morning and decide we were going to overthrow the government," said Struthers, who along with his colleagues say they had privately pleaded with Selinger to step down for months.

"I always take my share of responsibility. I am one of the ones, though, who can say I sacrificed and stuck my neck out in an effort to help the NDP. There are others who can't say that."

Seine River MLA Theresa Oswald lost the NDP leadership election to Selinger by 33 votes on the second ballot on March 8, 2015.

The leadership contest was sparked by a caucus revolt in the fall of 2014 when Oswald and four other cabinet ministers, Struthers, Jennifer Howard, Andrew Swan and Erin Selby, quit Selinger's side.

Struthers was the municipal affairs minister at the time of the mass resignation. Prior to that the veteran MLA was the finance minister tasked with presenting the 2013 budget which raised the PST by one-percentage-point, a decision the rebel ministers insisted was thrust on the electorate without enough warning.

Shortly after Oswald lost the leadership election, Struthers was the first dissident to say he would not seek re-election with Selinger. He is still critical of the embattled NDP Leader and said the party had a chance to offer the electorate a change within the party, but failed to do so.

"We tried our best to avoid an electoral disaster," he said.

"We tried our best to make sure our party knew some of the shady decisions that had been made."

The longtime cabinet minister said he's put a resume together and he's had a couple interviews recently, but will not disclose what he's been applying for.

"I'm 56 years old and I think I have another career in me," Struthers said.

Royce Koop political scientist at the University of Manitoba said he'd expected the NDP to rebound after New Democratic delegates narrowly voted to keep Selinger as boss.

"The NDP is an old disciplined party, they don't win as many elections as they have without some discipline and I thought the party was going to come together as best as they could and I'm actually really surprised that they haven't," Koop said.

"There certainly was the potential I think for the party to come together but it does not seem to have happened."

Of the five rebel cabinet ministers, only one, Minto MLA Andrew Swan is seeking re-election.

Koop said that coupled with last month's caucus outburst by St Norbert MLA Dave Gaudreau show the party isn't meshing.

"The whole point there was to try and unify around a leader, it was to kind of get past all this and start preparing for an election campaign where they could face kind of the 'real' enemy, Brian Pallister, and it hasn't happened," he said.

Recent public opinion polls have Selinger's support hovering around the 20 per cent mark, tied with the Manitoba Liberals, way behind the Progressive Conservatives.

"It was going to be a hard election for [Greg Selinger] anyway, without his party solidly behind him, it's going to be much worse," Koop said.

Still, one year after keeping his job as leader, Greg Selinger is confident he can keep his job as premier, too.

That's even though he's had to watch several veteran MLAs bow out of the race, including Justice Minister Gord Mackintosh and Culture, Heritage and Tourism Minister Ron Lemieux.

One of the former cabinet ministers who rebelled against Selinger, Fort Rouge MLA Jennifer Howard, was being used as the NDP's campaign spokesperson as recently as this January.

It looked like Howard and Selinger had buried the hatchet and she had confirmed her candidacy in the 2016 election at a party nomination meeting.

Suddenly at the end of January an about-face, Howard bailed on the race and announced she was leaving politics. In an email to CBC, Howard declined an interview and wrote she was "focused on looking forward, not back."

From now until Manitobans head to the polls April 19, Howard will be back and forth between Manitoba (helping her replacement, New Democrat Wab Kinew) and Ottawa, where she has started a job as the Executive Director of the Public Service Alliance of Canada.

The new NDP campaign spokesperson, Kirkfield Park MLA Sharon Blady, was a major Selinger supporter during the caucus revolt, and subsequently during the leadership race.

"Either Leader would have presented a challenge," Blady said reflecting back on the party's choice between Selinger and Oswald.

"I believe that when you look at Theresa, again, there would have been some other baggage had things unfolded differently. I'm very proud to work with Greg and I have seen a lot change."

Many political observers have condemned the NDP departures, such as Oswald, Howard, Lemieux and Mackintosh, as a sign the 16-year political dynasty will end in April, but Blady said their replacements represent a show of strength.

"One of the things that people are failing to recognize is they're focusing on who's left. They're not looking at who's coming in to fill those spaces," she said.

"So I believe we've actually gone through a period of great revitalization."

One of the departures is rebel leader herself, Theresa Oswald. Oswald is being replaced as the candidate in Seine River by Canadian Museum for Human Rights manager Lise Pinkos.

Oswald, who was Manitoba's health minister for more than seven years, is finishing her term as Seine River MLA and is helping on Pinkos' campaign, but beyond that is unsure about her future.

"I have not signed a contract for any new post," she wrote in an email.

"I will evaluate my options carefully. I want to engage in work where I can do some good for the community. But no concrete decisions yet."

Minto MLA Andrew Swan is the only rebel MLA to seek re-election, but he did not want to participate in an interview. Former health minister Erin Selby, the fifth rebel in the 'group of five,' also declined an interview.

Selby resigned her legislature seat in September 2015 to run for the federal NDP in St. Boniface-St. Vital, where she finished third.

She has since been scooped up as a negotiator for one of the province's largest unions, local 832 of the United Food and Commercial Workers.


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