WEATHER ALERT

If things look bad from the premier’s chair… Houde you gonna call? Stefanson’s new chief of staff brings experience, steady hand to leader of unpopular government

Has Premier Heather Stefanson just called in the cavalry?

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Opinion

Has Premier Heather Stefanson just called in the cavalry?

Politicos of every stripe took note Wednesday when her office confirmed she had hired Phil Houde as her new chief of staff at a time when many Tories are becoming increasingly concerned about their chances of being re-elected in 2023.

Over the last 30 years, Houde worked for six of the last seven Progressive Conservative leaders including, most recently, as chief of staff to former premier Brian Pallister between 2016 and 2019.

What does Houde bring to Stefanson’s political staff? The current executive council is desperately in need of a steady hand with deep reach into the PC party. Houde, who is also one of the calmest advisers you will meet in any political party, has all of that in spades.

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Over the last 30 years, Houde worked for six of the last seven Progressive Conservative leaders including, most recently, as chief of staff to former premier Brian Pallister between 2016 and 2019.

Whenever a premier brings in a new chief of staff, there will be many questions about whether it’s an act of crisis management, or merely a shuffling of the metaphorical deck chairs after confirming that the ship is going down.

In this instance, it could turn out to be a bit of both.

Tories are mostly in denial about whether they are facing an official crisis, although their prospects, just 17 months before the next general election, are quite dire. The party and its leader are decidedly unpopular right now and, rather than turning things around, Stefanson’s struggles over her first seven months have only contributed to a downward trajectory.

Stefanson took over the party last fall without much of a bump in popularity thanks to a caustic and controversial leadership campaign that was compromised in several important respects.

Operatives moved quickly to manipulate the campaign rules in her favour. Stefanson also started her campaign too early, according to Elections Manitoba, which recently cited her for spending $1,800 before the race legally began.

Even with those advantages, she got perilously close to losing the leadership to former federal MP Shelly Glover, who was so aggrieved she launched an ultimately unsuccessful, but publicly damaging, legal challenge to overturn the result.

From there, Stefanson has fallen prey to a series of verbal gaffes and mini-controversies.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Premier Heather Stefanson took over the party last fall without much of a bump in popularity thanks to a caustic and controversial leadership campaign that was compromised in several important respects.

From failing to publicly disclose the sale of tens of millions of dollars of personal real estate holdings, to the wrist-slap from Elections Manitoba, to her cringy decision to deflect questions about an ICU-bed crunch in Winnipeg hospitals by waxing poetic about her son’s high school hockey championship, Stefanson has not been a net benefit to her party.

Not yet.

In fairness, every new leader faces a steep learning curve. Even veteran politicians who have served as cabinet ministers — as Stefanson has since 2016 — have to endure a period of adjustment after becoming leader.

It’s sort of like performing in the chorus of a big musical. Sometimes, a member of the chorus can step into the shoes of the headline performer without missing a beat; other times, the promoted performers demonstrate pretty quickly they are not really up to the task.

It’s still too early to tell if Stefanson is the wrong woman for the job, or simply unable to escape the legacy of an extremely unpopular former leader who burned bridges and undermined public services with reckless abandon.

It’s still too early to tell if Stefanson is the wrong woman for the job, or simply unable to escape the legacy of an extremely unpopular former leader who burned bridges and undermined public services with reckless abandon.

This is where Houde comes in.

Experienced political journalists will tell you that you can judge the quality of a leader by the quality of the people in their inner circle. Good leaders are supported by good advisers; bad leaders surround themselves with sycophants.

Although we’re still in the early days of the Stefanson era, it’s not unfair to suggest she needs some sort of upgrade in executive council. Houde replaces Jordan Sisson, a loyal staffer who was a key figure in her leadership campaign but who did not have a lot of experience at the highest levels of political staff.

It should be said that there is experience in executive council from the Filmon years: Don Leitch (now clerk of executive council) and Bonnie Staples-Lyon (now a senior adviser) have been on board since last fall. But Stefanson has also lost some valuable expertise. For example, Jonathan Scarth, formerly the principal secretary and de facto chief of staff for Pallister after Houde stepped down, left to serve as chair of the Clean Environment Commission.

When all is said and done, it is probably too much to ask Houde to single-handedly turn things around. He is, without a doubt, an upgrade. But a saviour?

When all is said and done, it is probably too much to ask Houde to single-handedly turn things around. He is, without a doubt, an upgrade. But a saviour?

There are some within the party who no doubt blame Houde for not being able to keep Pallister under control. Perhaps, but former staffers who worked for Pallister can tell you he was uncontrollable. In fact, more than a few measured their time in his service in dog years: one year with “Pally” was worth seven years working for any other leader.

Even with Houde at her side, sooner or later Stefanson must demonstrate she’s ascended the learning curve and absorbed the skills and instincts necessary for the survival of any political leader.

If Stefanson listens to him, Houde will help. And then the rest of the challenge will rest with the premier.

dan.lett@winnipegfreepress.com

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 Friday, May 27, 2022 7:47 AM CDT: Fixes typos

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