Premier Brian Pallister defended the use of taxpayers’ resources to oversee an investigation into the background of NDP Leader Wab Kinew prior to the 2019 election.
"(To) disclose (a) criminal record is hardly the same as digging up dirt," Pallister said when asked at a news conference Tuesday how he could justify using executive council to oversee a probe of his political opponent.
Last month the Free Press reported that the premier ordered his senior political staff on executive council to hire a private investigator to dig up dirt on Kinew, a violation of strict guidelines to prevent partisan activities from intruding on the business of government.
"It’s the obligation of all of us to do our research, and not just political parties but I would hope in the media as well, and that is what we did," Pallister said Tuesday.
Executive council staff are not part of the regular civil service and are partisan appointees — however, they are still paid by government, and there are strict guidelines to keep party or electoral business away from day-to-day work in the offices of the Manitoba legislature. Leading an investigation into an opponent before an election crosses the line, says one expert on provincial politics.
"I think this is absolutely something that falls outside of the purview of the executive council," said Brandon University political science professor Kelly Saunders.
"This is quite shocking that Pallister has done this and directed his senior civil servants to do this," she said. "Digging up dirt through senior civil servants is a misuse of public funds and the good work that the civil service is supposed to be doing in that office," Saunders said.
It sends a "chilling" message to the civil service "about the way that this government has chosen to politicize the workings of the government and civil service," she said Tuesday. "Are they expected to be partisan? The role of the civil service is to serve the public," Saunders said.
"If everything is seen in a political lens, it's a dangerous road in a healthy democracy to go down... and a dangerous precedent to be setting," she said.
Kinew said the premier's defence of using the executive council to go after him won't boost his popularity.
"I think Manitobans are smart," and are turned off by the premier using the civil service to oversee an investigation of a political opponent, Kinew said. "It's the politics of personal destruction. It's an admission of their inability to engage in the issues. They change the subject and counter attack."
Allegations against Kinew dating back to a troubled time his 20s have been reported by the Free Press since 2016.
The premier said Tuesday that people who want to enter public life need to remember, "just as I am reminded frequently, that your life is on display." Pallister called on Kinew to "come clean" about any other interactions he may have had with the justice department or "various criminal activities," Pallister said.
"Because the sooner he wrestles those demons, the sooner forgiveness will come. And that’s what I hope for him."
Kinew's "demons" are more than 15 years old and were the subject of Progressive Conservative attack ads during the last election about allegations (which Kinew has denied) about domestic abuse and assaulting a taxi driver, as well as misogynist rap lyrics — that the PC ads cited as proof he is "a risk we can’t afford."
Using the head of the civil service to oversee efforts to dig up dirt on him was improper and smacks of Pallister's "desperation," Kinew said.
"This is what we see every time the premier gets in trouble — he tries to attack me." Kinew said he hasn't yet decided to file a formal complaint about whether or not Pallister's executive council misused taxpayers’ funds by overseeing a probe to dig up political dirt on an opponent. "I have been thinking 'is there some sort of recourse here?'" Kinew asked.
— with files from Dylan Robertson
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.