Premier opts for inaction on key cabinet posts
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What stands out most about this week’s provincial cabinet shuffle is not so much what Premier Heather Stefanson did, but rather what she did not do.
Cabinet shuffles are opportunities for first ministers to renew their governments by elevating backbenchers to the inner circle of power, while replacing ministers who are not seeking re-election. More importantly, they are used to address problem areas by making changes in departments that require new leadership.
The premier failed to act on at least two of those fronts.
Ms. Stefanson brought new blood into cabinet Monday by appointing four MLAs from the backbench to executive council. Janice Morley-Lecomte (Seine River) becomes minister for mental health and community wellness and James Teitsma (Radisson) was given the consumer protection and government services portfolio. Rookie MLA Obby Khan (Fort Whyte) was appointed minister of sport, culture and heritage and Kevin Klein, who won a byelection in Kirkfield Park in December, is the new minister of environment and climate.
While Ms. Stefanson did, as is customary, remove some members from cabinet who are not seeking re-election (notably former finance minister Cameron Friesen, who in a surprise move last week announced he plans to leave government to seek the federal Conservative nomination in Portage-Lisgar), she assigned to key posts others who are also quitting provincial politics.
Cliff Cullen, who is not seeking re-election, was appointed finance minister, one of the top portfolios in cabinet. He retains his position as deputy premier. Eileen Clarke, who is also not running in the scheduled Oct. 3 provincial election, was given the important portfolio of Indigenous reconciliation and northern relations, a position she held in the past.
What does it say about the depth of the Tory caucus when the premier cannot, or will not, fill key cabinet positions with MLAs who plan to contest the next election?
Perhaps the most confounding part of Monday’s cabinet shuffle was Ms. Stefanson’s decision to leave Audrey Gordon in her role as health minister.
Ms. Gordon’s performance in health since former premier Brian Pallister appointed her to the portfolio in August 2021 has not been stellar. Under her watch, emergency room overcrowding has worsened, wait times for procedures such as hip and knee surgeries have grown and Manitoba’s health care system is collapsing under the weight of an acute staffing shortage, for which no viable solution has been proposed.
The vacancy rate among health-care professionals at Health Sciences Centre is so high that some victims of sexual assault seeking examinations have been sent home and told, in an effort to preserve evidence, not to shower.
Ms. Gordon and her department appear to have run out of ideas regarding how to fix these problems. A plan announced in November to retain, recruit and train 2,000 new health-care staff by spending $200 million has produced no measurable results and continues to lack crucial details, including targets and timelines.
Despite that, Ms. Stefanson has chosen to leave the health ministry as is, almost in defiance of those who have criticized her government’s record on health care. No position in cabinet required a change in leadership more than health, yet Ms. Stefanson has expressed her full confidence in the current minister.
The premier had options to appoint experienced cabinet ministers who are seeking re-election, such as Justice Minister Kelvin Goertzen and Families Minister Rochelle Squires, to finance and health, while elevating others from the backbench to cabinet. She chose not to implement change of that nature.
It’s unlikely such a lapse in judgment will go unnoticed when voters go to the polls in October.