Cult of personality

Is Manitoba’s NDP going the way of celebrity politics?

Illustration by Gabrielle Funk

The political process is seemingly slipping away from policy and legislation and toward celebrity culture. Justin Trudeau was on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, Wab Kinew is the new Manitoba NDP leader, and Donald Trump is the president of the United States.

Because it’s 2017.

On Sept. 16 the New Democratic Party voted Fort Rouge MLA Wab Kinew to lead the opposite party against Brian Pallister’s standing Progressive Conservative government.

The voting floor at the NDP Leadership Convention was more purple than Lil Wayne’s Styrofoam cup.

Supporters were given “#IMWITHWAB” purple shirts by the remarkably organized Kinew campaign. The operation leaders buzzed around the building with communication headsets.

Kinew was challenged by cyclical NDP leadership candidate Steve Ashton, who brought comparatively little support to the convention.

Before the votes were cast, both candidates had an opportunity to address the delegates. Ashton was asked up first. The crowd mumbled amongst themselves as they faced an empty stage.

Several minutes after he was called to the stage, Ashton was in the adjacent hallway, looking at his phone.

By contrast, Kinew arranged a two-by-two row of purple-clad supporters to accompany him to the stage. Kinew walked hand-in-hand with his wife and their two sons, followed by the two rows of people in purple. Some held Kinew posters on sticks, some yelled war cries in the convention hallway. The energy was high.

The procession entered from the hallway into the voting floor of mostly purple delegates. The few Ashton supporters in attendance who arrived in orange became lost in a sea of purple shirts and enthusiasm. A promotional video of Kinew’s role with the NDP played on a projector screen as the Kinew procession moved toward the stage.

The only thing missing from his entrance was a laser light show and pyrotechnics.

Audible applause filled the room. The enthusiasm at the opportunity for a charismatic and well-spoken national celebrity to lead the Manitoba NDP seemed to trump the mounting concerns about Kinew’s past.

As the leadership race developed, so did the tales of Kinew’s checkered past with charges for impaired driving, assaulting a taxi driver and cashing a money order that didn’t belong to Kinew.

But as the convention took place, another story was developing.

The morning of the leadership event, Kinew’s former common-law wife Tara Hart provided her side of alleged events in 2003 that led to domestic assault charges against Kinew.

The NDP claims to have thoroughly vetted Kinew’s rap sheet, rap lyrics and public tweets prior to his drive for party leader. However, the live voices of Hart and her family contribute a new development.

Kinew’s legal history laid dormant in court records inactive for over a decade. However, stayed charges against Kinew came back to life on the day before the final NDP Leadership vote as Hart spoke with the Canadian Press about the alleged incident. Kinew denies the allegations and stated the events "didn't happen."

“I can’t accept responsibility for things I did not do,” he told the CBC.

A Kinew-led Manitoba NDP offers promise on some progressive fronts, such as truth and reconciliation between provincial government and Indigenous communities. Kinew is clever and articulate and has recently voiced opposition to homophobia, racism and the PC budget cuts to public services and student tax rebates.

However, the lead government critic will face media criticism of matters both policy and personal. New narratives contradict Kinew’s claims and complicate a Manitoba NDP that has grown all too used to its leadership issues, not too far displaced from a 2016 electoral disgrace.

Without much of a voting record, Kinew’s party leadership provides more questions than answers so far. Celebrity seemed to play a role in choosing the new party leader, but whether it will go as far in a general election awaits to be seen.

Published in Volume 72, Number 4 of The Uniter (September 28, 2017)

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