WINNIPEG - Manitoba's governing New Democrats are gathering this weekend under a cloud as the party tries to bolster public support amid voter anger and the ouster of a former cabinet minister from the NDP caucus.
The party has slipped in the polls since it raised the provincial sales tax last summer after ruling out tax increases during the 2011 election campaign. In the days leading up to the convention, the party has been rocked by a war of words between Premier Greg Selinger and former cabinet minister Christine Melnick.
Melnick was removed from caucus Tuesday after publicly accusing the premier's office of making her a scapegoat for an immigration debate controversy.
Premier Greg Selinger addressed the issue head-on less than a minute after taking the stage Friday night.
"This week I had to make a tough decision to remove someone from caucus," Selinger said to a virtually silent ballroom of about 400 delegates. "I know it hasn't been easy on anyone in this room but it was a necessary decision so that we could stay focused on the priorities of Manitobans."
Selinger detailed the party's accomplishments — touting everything from the expansion of Manitoba Hydro to capping class sizes from kindergarten to Grade 3 — then quickly attacked the Opposition Tories.
"The last time Brian Pallister sat around the cabinet table, 1,000 nurses got fired," Selinger said. "Brian Pallister is a serious threat but I'm a fighter and you are fighters and this caucus is full of fighters. We've been down before and we've fought our way back and we will do it again."
Cabinet ministers followed a similar script, hinting at the themes to come in the next provincial election campaign.
Education Minister James Allum told the delegates that there is a "big, bad wolf at the door" in reference to Pallister.
But the NDP are the "defending champs" and they have a record to be proud of, he said.
"The greatest threat right now to our kids, to our education system, to our health care system, to our environment, to our economy and our future is Brian Pallister and the Tories," Allum told the delegates. "We must not let that happen. We have to stand united, shoulder-to-shoulder, one for all and all for one, every single time."
Pundits and pollsters say the party is in trouble.
The NDP fared poorly in two recent byelections in western Manitoba, struggling to get more than 10 per cent of the vote. Although both seats were considered staunchly Conservative, the NDP came third behind the Liberals in Arthur-Virden.
Pollster Curtis Brown with Probe Research said the NDP is bleeding support to both the Tories and the Liberals. The NDP is even losing support in Winnipeg — a necessary stronghold if they want to hold on to power.
"They're not in a good place right now," Brown said. "They're down significantly compared to where they were in the last election and especially, and most importantly, they're down (in) Winnipeg."
When the NDP hiked the provincial sales tax to eight per cent from seven per cent, Brown said support for the NDP went "off a cliff." The party is consistently polling in the high 20s while support for the Conservatives hovers at around 48 per cent.
The Liberals, under new leader Rana Bokhari, are polling around 20 per cent, he said. Although some disaffected New Democrats may habitually park their vote with the Liberals between elections only to change their minds at the ballot box, Brown said this is the longest the Liberals have held that level of support.
Paul Thomas, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Manitoba, said the party is having a tough time controlling the agenda and getting its message heard. While he said the NDP has made some good infrastructure announcements, the government has had a hard time justifying the tax increase.
Melnick's ouster from caucus has also been an unnecessary distraction, he said. The party has to rally the flagging spirits of its troops this weekend and figure out how to wrestle control of the agenda once again, Thomas said.
"They are dispirited," he said. "Even people who have been long-time warriors on the NDP cause may be saying 'I'm not as excited about the party at this point and about the leader perhaps, so maybe I won't work as hard.'"
Delegates began gathering Friday afternoon and started debating about 150 policy resolutions which will not be binding on the government.
NDP secretary Nanci Morrison said Melnick's expulsion from caucus might be a topic of conversation among some delegates, but she said the convention is about policy.
"We're having no problem having people come to our convention, our dinner is sold out," she said. "I think there are challenges for the party certainly ahead, but the party is well-positioned to meet those challenges."