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Rumours of his departure will likely always dog Toews

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You've got to give it to Vic Toews. He is a most direct man.

At a Monday morning breakfast address to the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce, Manitoba's senior federal government minister started by dealing directly, as is his style, with the latest rumours that he is going to leave federal politics.

It had been reported by a television panel on Sunday, and a local radio station on Monday, that Toews, the president of the Treasury Board, was leaving politics for an appointment to either the Senate or the judiciary. Toews seized upon the reports to lighten the mood.

"And thank you to all of you for attending this morning, particularly because according to the media this will be my last day as regional minister for Manitoba before heading to the Senate.

"I wish the media wouldn't raise expectations like that in my caucus," Toews said, triggering laughter among an in-the-know crowd that included a host of retired and current politicians such as Lloyd Axworthy from the University of Winnipeg, Stuart Murray from the Canadian Museum for Human Rights and Hugh McFadyen, leader of the Manitoba Progressive Conservatives.

"It's tough trying to counsel my colleagues after they've been let down again."

It was a funny moment in large part because there's a grain of truth to that punchline. Toews is destined to be one of those politicians who is dogged by rumours of his own imminent demise, right up until the moment he actually leaves.

So it was last week when Veterans Affairs Minister Greg Thompson, a New Brunswick MP, announced he was stepping down, creating an opening that could trigger about half a dozen cabinet moves to be unveiled as early as this morning.

When there are changes to be made in the federal Tory cabinet, you can be sure that Toews's name will be mentioned. He denied the latest rumour. "I'm not going to the Senate, I'm not retiring, I'm not going to the bench," he said following his speech. "I'm not leaving politics."

But why would Toews get tagged as the man on the way out in just about every cabinet shuffle story? It's the consequence of getting caught once before trying to leave federal politics for a cushy federal appointment.

In May 2008, it was discovered that Toews wanted to leave politics and be appointed to the Manitoba Court of Queen's Bench. He denied the story, but it was later confirmed he wanted out of politics altogether in the wake of a divorce and revelations he had a relationship with a Tory staffer.

It was only after the intervention of some of his closest advisers that he agreed to run for re-election in the snap vote that fall. Once you've been outed as someone who wants out, it's hard to persuade people you aren't the next person to leave.

At this stage of Toews's career, the question perhaps isn't will he stay, but should he stay?

Being the regional minister in these troubled economic and political times certainly isn't an easy job. However, Toews has always seemed to invite more criticism than his predecessors have ever had to deal with.

In large part, he invites the criticism because he is so direct. A now-infamous comment about how Manitoba could have either federal funding for clean drinking water or federal funding for a football stadium frustrated many Manitoba Tories, especially those holding Winnipeg seats.

Toews is well-known for complaining that Manitoba already gets more than its fair share of federal funds, something that doesn't seem to fit the job description of regional minister, the man responsible for dishing out pork in his home province. As a result of this ambivalence, he has been called the "regional minister for Steinbach," by both Tories and opposition.

Should he go, will he go, or will he just keep on keeping on until the next federal election? The best bet is that despite his spotty performance and botched effort to get out of politics two years ago, Toews is going to be allowed to stay.

According to a Canadian Press story that broke late Monday night, Toews will be moved to Public Safety this morning when the cabinet shuffle is announced.

Not that Toews seems concerned either way.

In a candid moment after the speech, Toews continued to joke that he likes to encourage the rumours because "I get to read about what everybody is saying about me."

Almost like hearing the eulogy before the funeral?

"Yeah," Toews said with a warm chuckle. "Something like that."

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 19, 2010 A4

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