Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Fletcher odd man out in cabinet switch

Harper's shift in focus costs disabled MP

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Prior to Monday's cabinet shuffle, Winnipeg MP Steven Fletcher had known only political success.

SEAN KILPATRICK /THE CANADIAN PRESS ARCHIVES Enlarge Image

Prior to Monday's cabinet shuffle, Winnipeg MP Steven Fletcher had known only political success.

With every cabinet shuffle, there are winners and losers. Monday's overhaul of the federal cabinet by Prime Minister Stephen Harper was no exception.

Shelly Glover is a big winner. The Saint Boniface MP was not only appointed to cabinet, but given the demanding Heritage portfolio to oversee.

Portage-Lisgar MP Candace Bergen is also a winner. Former parliamentary secretary for public safety, Bergen garnered national attention when she sponsored a private members' bill to abolish the long-gun registry. She becomes secretary of state for social development, a newly-created junior post.

The list of cabinet shuffle losers from Manitoba is short: Winnipeg MP Steven Fletcher, a junior minister for five years, was dropped altogether. Fletcher is the first quadriplegic elected to the House of Commons, and the first ever appointed to cabinet.

First ministers rarely comment on demotions, so we'll never know for sure why Fletcher was left out. Harper would only say this shuffle was about "generational change." Given that Fletcher is only 41, a veritable toddler in politician years, that doesn't reveal much about his demotion.

'I would have preferred to have left cabinet the traditional way -- with a sex scandal.'

-- Cabinet shuffle 'loser' Steven Fletcher

We also know it wasn't his health, per se. In a statement, and in a subsequent interview with the Free Press, Fletcher made it clear he wanted to stay. He also did not use his health as an excuse, an easy way to avoid the humiliation of being demoted. He had suffered a setback in 2012 that required surgery. However, since then he has been, once again, arguably the nation's most active politician in a wheelchair. Fletcher promised he would run again in 2015.

It was clear he was taking the demotion hard. In one of the greatest exit lines ever in Manitoba politics, Fletcher lamented the manner in which he was dropped. "I would have preferred to have left cabinet the traditional way -- with a sex scandal."

That's pretty stoic stuff. However, Fletcher's comment reveals a fundamental truth in politics: it's actually quite hard to get tossed from cabinet once you're in. Not impossible, mind you. Just difficult. To what, then, can we attribute this decision?

Again, Fletcher offered a modicum of insight. In his statement, Fletcher said the prime minister's priority in this cabinet shuffle was adding more women. "I agree," Fletcher said. "Gender distribution is an important part of any cabinet composition."

There is a consensus that Harper's focus on gender and youth is well-timed. The Conservative government has seen the Liberals vault into the lead of most opinion polls on the strength of Justin Trudeau's leadership. With this shuffle, Tory strategists are essentially endorsing the view outside the party that Trudeau's youth requires a targeted response.

Fletcher did not mention geography, but that was also a consideration. Glover seemed predestined to step into the role of regional minister, left vacant when Public Safety Minister Vic Toews resigned last week. However, unless Fletcher left, Manitoba would have had two Winnipeg ministers, something rural Tories would not have allowed.

And yet, even though he may have been the wrong gender and represented the wrong riding, Fletcher is still a compelling character, having overcome a debilitating injury to forge a successful political career. In fact, until this moment, Fletcher has really only known political success.

In 2004, he twice had to win nominations -- once for the Canadian Alliance and then another time when the CA and Progressive Conservatives merged -- to run federally in Charleswood-St. James. He then defeated Liberal star candidate Glen Murray, who resigned as Winnipeg mayor for what many Grits believed was a safe seat.

How could someone who generated this narrative and brought such honour to his party end up the odd man out?

Even though his is a compelling story, Fletcher has never been a particularly sympathetic character within his party. He was not well-liked when he was president of the provincial Tories. As a result, there are many conservatives of different brands in this province who were quick to express doubt when he was appointed to a cabinet post.

Some Tories complained he was, for obvious reasons, difficult to communicate with and frequently unavailable due to the complex logistics needed to get him from place to place. His recent health challenges likely fuelled concern he was, notwithstanding his successes, ultimately unable to do the job.

It is important to note that other than vague comments about Fletcher's performance, there is no hard evidence he wasn't up to the job. It is quite easy in that context to imagine the criticism levelled at Fletcher was, in essence, proof that far too many of us are still uncomfortable in the presence of someone with a profound disability.

When it comes to competence, politics has always made room for an unhealthy number of living, breathing examples of the Peter Principle. Especially when there are other political considerations in play. In this instance, it appears Fletcher had neither the gender, the riding or, it appears, the support within the party to retain his cabinet post.

Fletcher overcame great obstacles to succeed in politics. Ultimately, however, he could not overcome politics itself.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 16, 2013 A5

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