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Don't expect to see Melnick at NDP confab

But she'll be huge unofficial topic

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(MELISSA TAIT / WINNIPEG FREE PRE)

Christine Melnick will not attend the NDP's annual convention that kicks off this evening, but her ouster this week from the party's legislative caucus is sure to dominate the hallway and coffee-break chatter all weekend.

In an interview Thursday, the Riel MLA said she does not want her appearance at the three-day event to detract from important party business.

"I stand by what I did this week. It had to be done. But I don't want to be disrupting people at convention," she said.

Melnick, a former immigration and multiculturalism minister, shocked her party and her caucus Monday when she accused Premier Greg Selinger and his senior political staffers of hanging her out to dry over a two-year-old controversy at the legislature. Melnick alleged she was simply following orders from senior staffers when she directed her department to invite local immigrant groups to attend a debate in the legislature. (The premier had denied he or his political staff were involved and said Melnick acted without his knowledge.)

The day after Melnick levelled her accusation, Selinger booted her out of the caucus, saying he had lost confidence in her. He denied Melnick's accusations, maintaining the former minister had acted on her own in directing the senior civil servant to issue the invite. She lost her cabinet job in October.

About 450 NDPers are expected to register for the three-day annual general meeting in Winnipeg. Selinger kicks off the event with a speech this evening.

The past 12 months haven't been kind to Selinger. His government is still licking its wounds from the fallout of its unpopular decision to increase the PST. The NDP is now at its lowest point in public opinion polls since wresting power from the Tories in 1999.

The premier can take comfort, however, from the fact he won't have to face the electorate for another two years.

The NDP will debate dozens of policy resolutions this weekend, prioritized from a total of nearly 200. Among the issues up for debate are an increase to rental allowances for welfare recipients and the institution of a junk-food tax. The latter is not supported by the government and is unlikely to pass.

What kind of mood party members will be in is anybody's guess. But it's very unlikely anybody will formally call for Selinger's head, particularly over the Melnick controversy.

One NDP stalwart said at least some dissension is common when a political party hits bottom in the polls. If anything, Melnick's outburst may cause the group to rally around the premier.

"I don't think there's a movement afoot to overthrow the leader. I don't see that at all," the prominent NDP member said. "I think this might put people back in Greg's camp, so to speak."

On the other hand, there may be anger voiced at Melnick this weekend for raising grudges in public and embarrassing the premier. "There will be people calling for her to be kicked out of the party," the NDPer said.

But Ellen Olfert, provincial party president, said Friday that can't be done at convention.

Under party rules, any motion to have a member expelled must be made to the party's executive, and then the member would receive a hearing. The party's annual convention would have the ability, however, to reverse a decision made at the executive level.

Meanwhile, Melnick said Thursday she intends to seek re-election in 2016. She said she's aware she is almost certain to face a challenge for her party's nomination and could even face expulsion from the NDP.

"Whatever people do, they do, and I don't have any control over that. I just know that I did what I felt was the right thing. And I stand by that," she said.

Melnick also said Thursday she doesn't feel the need to apologize to the house when it resumes sitting March 6, for lying to MLAs about whether she ordered her assistant deputy minister to invite immigrant groups to the legislature.

She said she's already "apologized many times before" for her mistake and explained the health problems she reckons that were behind it.

Melnick said she has already received "an incredible amount of support" from constituents -- via emails and calls to her office and at home -- since going public with her accusations. "I'm very humbled by the support I have gotten, actually."

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca

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