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Who will protest Manitoba's democracy deficit?

The heavily-hyped prorogation protest in Winnipeg drew barely 300 people (by the Winnipeg Free Press count) or 438 people (by one participant's count posted on the rally's official website).

Organizer Chris Burnett said he was pleased. On Thursday he told the Winnipeg Free Press, "If there are less than 500 I will be disappointed."

If only re-setting the bar was an Olympic sport, 36-year-old Chris would have a future.

To prove they weren't partisan, the organizers started the rally at the University of Winnipeg, the base of hyper-partisan Liberal Lloyd Axworthy.

To demonstrate their political acumen, they marched to the provincial Legislature, which has no connection to Stephen Harper, Parliament or prorogation.

To illustrate they knew what they were doing, they walked in a circle and ended up right back at the U of W where they had hot chocolate.

The protestors said they were standing up for democracy, not showboating for the Liberals or NDP.

If that was the case, they should have stayed at the Legislature because that's where the NDP government was doing its dictatorial best this week to stifle the democratic process in Manitoba.

The occasion was a mandatory meeting of the Standing Committee on Legislative Affairs. Usually these meetings are as boring as the name. This one was electric.

The meeting was called because of the impending departure of Chief Electoral Officer Richard Balasko, who is leaving under a deep, dark cloud because of his too-cozy relationship with the NDP.

Balasko's official spin is that he always intended to retire when he reached 55. The reality is that his job ended months ago when the leaders of the Opposition Conservatives and the Liberal Party revoked their confidence in him. It had been revealed that Balasko actively helped the NDP cover-up an election expenses scandal dating back to 1999.

* A forensic auditor discovered that the NDP was filing false expense claims to get reimbursed from the public purse.

It wasn't an inadvertent mistake or an attempt to push the rules; it was an orchestrated scheme to defraud Elections Manitoba and it had been going on for years. The NDP could then use the rebates as a secret slush fund in the next election to bypass spending limits because there would be no record of where the money came from.

* When caught, the NDP insisted the auditor be fired. Balasko took care of it.

The NDP didn't want to be charged with breaking the Elections Act. Balasko let them pay the 1999 rebate back quietly and let them keep what they got in prior elections, no questions asked.

* The NDP wanted it kept quiet.

Balasko revealed the repayment in a brief note in an obscure government publication two days before Christmas. Conservative Party candidates accused of election infractions weren't offered deals before Balasko pressed charges and notified the news media.

With Balasko hitting the bricks in April, Manitoba needs a new Chief Electoral Officer pronto. There's an election scheduled for 2011, and the NDP might be planning an earlier election call in advance of at least two other brewing scandals -- an inquest into the death of Brian Sinclair in a hospital waiting room (called a year ago, postponed in January, no date set) and a whistleblower's complaint of costly mismanagement at Manitoba Hydro (received 14 months ago, no investigation done, no completion date even remotely hinted at).

The government wanted the Legislative Affairs committee to rubber-stamp the start of the process to replace Balasko.

Instead, the Opposition, with the support of the Liberal Party, said the price of their cooperation was a public inquiry into the 1999 NDP rebate fraud.

The NDP, using its majority on the committee, voted down the Opposition motion. The Opposition walked out of the committee.

It was at that point we learned how the authoritarian NDP government views democracy in Manitoba.

Committee chairman Tom Nevakshonoff (NDP-Interlake) declared that participation by the Opposition on committees of the Legislature is only a courtesy. The government can ignore the presence or absence of Opposition members at will and, in this case, they did, voting unanimously to create a subcommittee to find a new Chief Electoral Officer.

As for letting the public learn whether the NDP engaged in fraud during the 1999 election? Fuggedaboutit, said Bill Blaikie, speaking for unelected Premier Greg Selinger. It's like cheating on your income tax, he said. You get caught, you pay it back.

"Not everybody who files a return and then has to file another return is charged with evasion or fraud or whatever. This goes on all the time in all kinds of these kinds of processes, and this is what went on then. That's our view of the matter…" he said.

- The NDP cheated in the 1999 election.
- They got caught two years later.
- They managed to cover it up for another 5 years with the help of the Chief Electoral Officer.

- Now they plan to appoint a new elections officer who will not have the confidence of the House because he will be seen as a lapdog hired to do the bidding of the government.

Where are the pro-democracy protestors? Why are they not picketing the NDP with their clever signs and tortured rhymes?

The NDP have managed to destroy the integrity of every independent officer of the Manitoba Legislature.

Apart from Elections Manitoba, the office of the Auditor General was irreparably tainted when new Hydro Minister Rosann Wowchuk declared she had no concerns with Carol Bellringer's blatant conflict of interest while she "investigated" the whistleblower's complaint about Hydro.

Bellringer sat on Hydro's board of directors with the very people she would be "investigating." She would take as long as she wanted to complete her investigation, she told the CBC. Her report on Hydro might be finished in 18 months, she said. Or, dare we say, maybe even after the next election to the relief of the NDP.

Bellringer was eventually shamed into handing the whistleblower complaint back to the Ombudsman. Wowchuk was sad.

The Ombudsman, in turn, has been revealed as a toothless watchdog indeed. Tasked by law to handle whistleblower complaints "expeditiously", Irene Hamilton has bumbled the Hydro complaint, doing nothing with it for 14 months and now announcing she will likely wait for a Public Utilities Board study of Hydro to be finished sometime in the future before taking it up again. Maybe she, too, can delay it past the next election.

The NDP can only hope.

The Opposition, meanwhile, will have another opportunity to fight for a public inquiry into the 1999 NDP election scandal. The cards are beginning to favour them.

The subcommittee set up by the NDP to find a new elections chief is to be made up of four NDP, two Conservatives and one Liberal. If the minority members refuse to sit, the subcommittee cannot function. Trying to operate as a fully partisan committee would signal any legitimate applicant for the job: RUN, DON'T WALK.

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