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Toews' departure expected; succession planning lags

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When Vic Toews finally retired from politics, he said he would be pursuing opportunities in the "private sector."

Nobody knows quite what that means, but whatever the opportunity, Toews will likely face a steep learning curve. He is a lifelong public servant, having gone straight from law school to the provincial Justice Department and then to the provincial and federal legislatures with only a brief stop as in-house counsel at Great-West Life. As a result, he may be unfamiliar with private-sector practices, such as succession planning.

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One of the hallmarks of a good private-sector company is advance planning for the replacement of top executives. Successful organizations know it can be devastating to lose a key executive without working to ensure someone else is ready to step into that position seamlessly.

It is not an exaggeration to say there has been very little planning for Toews' departure. That is not to say it wasn't expected; his retirement has been rumoured for several years now, ever since it was learned in 2008 he wanted to leave politics for a judicial appointment. Even so, there were no visible signs he was mentoring one of the other Tory MPs from Manitoba to take over his very important job.

Toews certainly leaves big shoes to fill. Nationally, he was the standard-bearer for the social conservatives in the Tory party. In Manitoba, he was, simply put, the big dog.

According to party insiders, he never sought counsel from, or offered it to, other Tory MPs. He rarely shared a stage or consulted his caucus on big decisions. He kept a decidedly low profile, doing few media interviews or public events. The rest of the caucus, perhaps having been told it was better to be seen and not heard, tended to follow his lead, and as a result, few were able to forge their own political brand.

Yet a senior cabinet post will be filled by a Manitoba Tory. Federal governments always appoint a lieutenant from each province. If Manitoba is to continue with two cabinet posts, most Tories in this province believe one of either Shelly Glover (Saint Boniface) or Candice Bergen (Portage-Lisgar) will be promoted. However, it's not clear whether they will be asked to serve as the senior minister, or whether that job will go to Steven Fletcher, MP for Charleswood-St. James-Assiniboia and a junior minister in charge of democratic reform.

It's not certain Manitoba will get an additional cabinet post. Fletcher -- the first quadriplegic MP and cabinet minister -- could take on regional duties. He has stepped in for Toews to handle negotiations on some infrastructure files and is well-liked by the province.

The more interesting question is whether Fletcher, who is almost certain to remain if his health allows it, or any other MP promoted to cabinet to take on regional-minister duties will continue Toews' style of politics.

Toews was often referred to, even in Tory circles, as the regional minister for Steinbach, the largest community in his southeast Manitoba riding of Provencher. It was a not-so-subtle shot at a politician who frequently told colleagues he cared little about Winnipeg because he didn't need the citizens of the capital city to get re-elected.

As soon as Canada's right-wing parties united, Toews became unbeatable. Even after it was learned his marriage was destroyed by an extramarital relationship with a political staffer, the ultra-religious, socially conservative voters of Provencher returned him with his largest plurality ever.

Fuelled by his electoral success, Toews tended to eschew Winnipeg issues and shunned much of the Winnipeg media. It was somewhat ironic that Toews mentioned, in a statement confirming his retirement, funding for the completion of the Red River Floodway as his most notable achievement. The reality is he reneged on a Liberal pledge to pay for the expansion outside normal infrastructure funding, even though he had promised during the 2006 election to live up to the terms of the Liberal deal.

Oddly, many of the other Manitoba Tory MPs have faithfully emulated Toews' aloof style. Particularly MPs such as Glover who, save for a few funding announcements and constituency events, is rarely seen or heard.

The difference between Toews and Glover is the latter does not hold a safe seat. In fact, strategists from all parties think if the Liberals maintain their new-found popularity, several seats, including Glover's, will suddenly be in play. Winnipeg Tory MPs would be well-advised to consider whether Toews' flying-beneath-the-radar style is a winner in the next election.

Toews had a good, long run as regional minister. With his departure, there's an opportunity to start a new era of federal Tory politics in Manitoba.

It's also an opportunity for one of Manitoba's remaining 11 Tory MPs to galvanize a personal brand while showing the Conservative party has an interest in all regions of the province.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 9, 2013 A4

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