‘Catch me when you can’ Stefanson keeps media at bay during flood tours

Premier Heather Stefanson is thumbing her nose at the long-standing playbook that has guided Manitoba premiers during past floods.

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Premier Heather Stefanson is thumbing her nose at the long-standing playbook that has guided Manitoba premiers during past floods.

Former premiers — Gary Filmon, Gary Doer, Greg Selinger — would schedule well-publicized trips to flooded areas with media in tow, to assess the damage, reassure local officials and encourage flood fighters. In some cases, those trips included opposition party leaders. But in Stefanson’s case, her visits are almost secretive, since the only sign she has been in a flood zone comes from her social media feed.

Premier Heather Stefanson and Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Doyle Piwniuk during a stop at The Narrows Tuesday. Media were not advised of the tour. (Supplied)

The premier — who has avoided question period several times to attend funding announcements and dodged reporters’ questions at news conferences last week — has toured flood-hit areas in the past two days, including the Interlake, Carman, Winkler and Morden. Each time, there has been no advance notice to the media, who would typically document the tours as part of daily news coverage on this spring’s flooding.

In past floods, news media would be informed about when and where the premier would be so they could provide coverage. This time, reporters are being told to wait and watch for the premier’s tweets on her Twitter feed.

“Feel free to follow along her social media,” Stefanson’s press secretary told the Free Press Wednesday after being asked when and where the premier will tour flooded areas so a reporter and photographer could attend.

“Telling journalists to simply follow the premier on social media to learn about her agenda is a practice that cannot be dissociated from former U.S. president Donald Trump,” said Felix Mathieu, a political studies professor at the University of Winnipeg.

Premier Gary Filmon surveys high water near Brunkild, Man. during the 1997 flood. (Jeff de Booy / Winnipeg Free Press files)

The premier’s Twitter feed is full of hand-picked photos from the flood zone — without interruption from reporters who would inevitably ask her uncomfortable questions.

It’s a strategy that might do her lagging popularity more harm than good because it gives fair arguments to the opposition to attack her character and political judgment, said Mathieu.

“After all, symbols matter in politics,” he said.

Her absences from question period over the past few weeks could damage her reputation because it’s something the opposition can also capitalize on, the academic said.

Riding Mountain MLA Leanne Rowat and Manitoba premier Greg Selinger tour homes along the north side of Birdtail Creek in the community of Birtle to get a look at flood protection measures in 2014. (Tim Smith / Brandon Sun files)
Even though the public doesn’t always appreciate the theatrics of question period, “most agree, though, that this is a key aspect of our parliamentary democracy that a premier ought to deal with properly,” Mathieu said.

Offering the premier’s social media feed from the flood zone in lieu of her answering questions shows poor judgment, opposition politicians said Wednesday.

“There’s no substitute for being able to ask questions of a decision-maker directly, rather than having what you get on Twitter,” said NDP Leader Wab Kinew, a former journalist. “It should be an opportunity for a premier to communicate with Manitobans and also respond to the important questions that journalists have right now,” Kinew said.

(Despite the rising floodwater and evacuations this week, the provincial government’s flood experts and officials have not held a media briefing to answer questions from reporters since Friday.)

“A free press, I think, is an important way to reach the public. People watch the news, people read the paper. They deserve to get information from elected leaders,” Kinew said.

Gary Doer straddles a water filled dike in place at Ste. Agathe in anticipation of the Red River crest in 2006. (Ken Gigliotti / Winnipeg Free Press files)

“It’s really unfortunate that, basically, the premier is going into hiding to avoid questions,” Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said. “To sort of play coy or say ‘catch me when you can’ is not an acceptable response from a premier, either in a pandemic or in a flood,” he said.

Media bulletins in the past week have announced the premier will attend rural funding announcements, including one in Russell on Tuesday, which she ditched at the last minute to tour the flood zone in the Interlake without any media notice.

“Telling journalists to simply follow the premier on social media to learn about her agenda is a practice that cannot be dissociated from former U.S. president Donald Trump.”– Felix Mathieu, University of Winnipeg professor

A government news release issued later that day, to announce funding for an expanded chemotherapy unit, included quotes from Stefanson as though she had attended the Russell event. Her press secretary later clarified that had been a “mistake” and a revised news release was issued.

Mathieu said it appears Stefanson has been advised to work out her schedule to restrict opportunities for the mainstream media in Winnipeg to ask her tough questions.

“In doing so, she could communicate with local communities directly and benefit from local news coverage that tends to be less confrontational with politicians,” he said.

Manitoba premier Gary Doer views flood affected areas in the Red River basin from a helicopter in 2006. (Marcel Cretain / The Canadian Press / The Winnipeg Sun / File)

Stefanson’s “difficult meetings with the media” may have been identified by her advisers as the main reason she’s failed to gain popular support.

The latest Probe Research poll, conducted in March, showed support for the Progressive Conservative government under Stefanson — who replaced the unpopular Brian Pallister — dropped to 34 per cent from 37 per cent.

Trying to control the narrative with a social-media feed and avoiding reporters is a strategy that might pay off over the short term but won’t likely have long-term positive benefits for the beleaguered premier, said Mathieu.

“Not having access to the premier won’t stop mainstream media from addressing these issues. The premier will have no choice but to face them sooner or later — and then the questions might be getting harder and harder for the premier to address in a positive way,” Mathieu said.

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.

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Updated on Wednesday, May 4, 2022 7:30 PM CDT: Fixes typo.

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