Closely tied to unpopular Pallister, Stefanson faces difficult distancing act

What did we learn on the first unofficial day of the race to replace Progressive Conservative leader and Premier Brian Pallister? First and foremost, it's going to be super difficult for anyone involved in the Tory government to credibly distance themselves from a profoundly unpopular premier and his equally unpopular policies.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/08/2021 (412 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

What did we learn on the first unofficial day of the race to replace Progressive Conservative leader and Premier Brian Pallister? First and foremost, it’s going to be super difficult for anyone involved in the Tory government to credibly distance themselves from a profoundly unpopular premier and his equally unpopular policies.

An excellent case could be found on Wednesday, when Tuxedo MLA Heather Stefanson, a key member of Pallister’s cabinet for the past five-plus years, announced she was resigning as health minister to commit her time to winning the leadership of the PC party. She claims to have the support of 24 members of the Tory caucus.

Without any prompting from journalists, Stefanson said her first act as premier would be to drive a stake through the heart of Bill 64, the cryptically named Education Modernization Act.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS PC MLA Heather Stefanson speaks at a press conference at South Winnipeg Community Centre in Winnipeg Wednesday, August 18, 2021. Stefanson announced that she will be running to be premier and leader of the Manitoba PC party. Reporter: ?
Quietly, Tory MLAs have expressed their concern about blowback from Bill 64, which would dramatically reduce both the number and influence of school divisions. However, there were no public signs of dissent.

But there was Stefanson, and key cabinet colleagues such as Education Minister Cliff Cullen, applauding loudly when the woman who would be premier said her government would kill the bill.

Her announcement, and the reaction from her supporters, raises interesting questions, starting with an obvious one: where were they when Bill 64 was introduced?

In June, Cullen was still extolling the virtues of Bill 64 when he announced the launch of a website to counteract “misinformation” about its impact on public education. “We encourage Manitobans to be part of this amazing opportunity to improve the education system,” Cullen stated in a news release.

It was hard to look at the smile on Cullen’s face as he applauded Stefanson’s promise to kill Bill 64 and not wonder how this horrendous excuse for an education plan ever made it to the order paper in the first place.

Quietly, Tory MLAs have expressed their concern about blowback from Bill 64, which would dramatically reduce both the number and influence of school divisions. However, there were no public signs of dissent.

Does this mean Bill 64 is dead? It’s not entirely clear.

It is hard to imagine that Pallister, who remains the premier for the time being, will allow his caucus to bully him into dropping it from the legislative calendar. Bill 64 is slated for a second reading, and another vote in the legislature, in early October. Will that session be delayed and if not, will all 24 members of Team Stefanson vote against their own government?

To be fair, this is not a dilemma of Stefanson’s making, not really. This is the predicament that confronts any elected member of the Pallister government who makes a bid to lead the party.

Pallister is very unpopular, as are many of his central policies. Does a leadership hopeful abandon all of those policies and leave themselves open to awkward questions about why they didn’t speak up sooner? Or do they just pledge to continue the work of that leader, no matter how unpopular (in this case) he may be?

Stefanson’s carefully scripted answers to the most likely of questions from journalists shows she is fully aware of her predicament. It should be noted that beyond her promise to kill Bill 64, Stefanson gave no indication she was willing to walk away from any of Pallister’s other plans or accomplishments.

For example, she refused to concede there is a crisis in Winnipeg emergency rooms despite clear, empirical evidence to the contrary.

Manitoba entered the pandemic with its hospital system reeling from a badly implemented reorganization of emergency medicine that left city ERs profoundly understaffed. When the pandemic hit hard in the second and third waves, our ERs were quickly overwhelmed.

Only Manitoba had to airlift patients to other provinces because of a lack of ER capacity. Stefanson not only disputed the notion this was evidence of a crisis, she offered no explanation about why it happened.

Pallister is very unpopular, as are many of his central policies. Does a leadership hopeful abandon all of those policies and leave themselves open to awkward questions about why they didn’t speak up sooner? Or do they just pledge to continue the work of that leader, no matter how unpopular (in this case) he may be?

Nor, did she have much to say about a pandemic response that twice produced the worst outbreaks on the continent. In Stefanson’s account, the government’s response has always been based on “evidence and the best advice” from public health officials. That is categorically untrue, as Pallister repeatedly dragged the pandemic response away from science and into the dangerous realm of politics.

In lauding her own accomplishments, Stefanson repeatedly tried to reduce her role in the pandemic to the vaccine implementation, the one bright spot in what has been a horrible overall response from government.

When it was pointed out she has been invisible for most her time as health minister, she claimed she was working “diligently behind the scenes.” When reporters pressed her about not being available to speak about the ER staffing crisis, she suggested she was talking to lots of people, just not journalists.

If this is all Stefanson has to offer — a pledge to kill Bill 64 and an attempt to escape culpability on the horrid pandemic response — then she may find the future does not quite unfold the way she wants it to.

With the show of force she mustered for her launch, there is every reason to believe Stefanson is the front-runner, but unless she can credibly distance herself from Pallister, she may find that her leadership destiny takes her straight past the premier’s office to the opposition benches of the legislature.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

History

Updated on Wednesday, August 18, 2021 8:01 PM CDT: adds missing word

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