Friesen departure knocks new hole in Tory election boat

Another one bites the dust. Tory MLA Cameron Friesen is the latest member of Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson’s cabinet to call it quits.

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Another one bites the dust. Tory MLA Cameron Friesen is the latest member of Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson’s cabinet to call it quits.

Friesen informed the premier Friday morning he will step down as finance minister and leave provincial politics. His departure is a major blow to the Tories.

The MLA for Morden-Winkler is one of the brightest minds in Tory caucus. He has held a number of tough portfolios during the party’s almost seven years in government, including health and justice.

Fluently bilingual and able to handle virtually any political task thrown his way, Friesen’s experience and political know-how will be sorely missed by the party. Few Tory ministers have command of their portfolios like he has.

The former school teacher and accomplished pianist would easily win his Morden-Winkler seat again if he sought re-election (it’s one of the safest Tory electoral divisions in Manitoba). However, like most of the one-third of Tory caucus who have already quit or said they are not running in the next election, the idea of returning to the opposition benches is not terribly appealing.

If there ever was a time for Friesen (first elected in 2011) and others to move on, this is it.

Friesen plans to seek the federal Conservative nomination in Portage—Lisgar to replace outgoing MP Candice Bergen.

It’s a golden opportunity for the rural MLA and a natural transition for many provincial politicians.

Friesen has a good chance of winning the nomination and would almost automatically become MP if he did (Portage—Lisgar is a rock-solid Conservative riding). He could even wind up in government, if Canadians decide they’ve had enough of the federal Liberals.

Those reasons alone would be enough to convince Friesen to leave provincial politics. Still, the prospect of returning to the opposition benches (where he spent five years from 2011 to 2016) for at least four to eight years before getting another shot at government is an added incentive to go.

Friesen’s departure will further sap whatever brain trust is left in Stefanson’s inner circle of power.

The premier dumped two senior and very experienced staff from government earlier this month: Don Leitch, former clerk of executive council, and Phil Houde, former chief of staff. With several trusted cabinet ministers not seeking reelection — including Economic Development Minister Cliff Cullen and Municipal Relations Minister Eileen Clarke, who will likely be replaced in an upcoming cabinet shuffle — Stefanson is facing a dearth of experience around the cabinet table.

Considering how much she relies on others for guidance and direction, that’s a significant liability.

Replacing Friesen just weeks before government unveils its 2023 budget is not something Stefanson expected.

Planning and delivering a budget takes months. Having a capable and experienced finance minister guide a budget through the planning process and presenting it to the public is one of the most important tasks in government.

It’s even more important in an election year. Whoever replaces Friesen will be at a significant disadvantage, not having the benefit of weeks of briefings and planning.

Mostly, Friesen’s departure is further evidence the Tory reign is coming to an end. People are leaving because they see no immediate future in the party.

The organization will likely undergo a major overhaul after the scheduled Oct. 3 election.

Members will have to rebuild a party structure that was torn down by former premier Brian Pallister, whose autocratic and abrasive style did not lend itself to the virtues of team building and collaboration.

Tories will have to decide how to modernize their organization and make it more appealing to urban voters, whom they have alienated in recent years with outdated conservative policies. They will have to figure out how to become a “progressive” conservative party, if they want renewed success in Winnipeg.

Those are long-term goals that will take years to accomplish. Politicians such as Friesen and others who are leaving know they will not be part of that process.

Those are tasks younger and up-and-coming party members will have to take on. The old guard is moving on.

Friesen and others see the writing on the wall.

Tom Brodbeck

Tom Brodbeck

Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.

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