Calling out senior bureaucrats, waving white flag
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You know it’s over for government when a senior cabinet minister starts attacking her own bureaucracy.
Manitoba Health Minister Audrey Gordon blasted seniors officials at Shared Health this week for failing to fix a severe staffing shortage in Health Sciences Centre’s forensic nursing program. The minister claimed it’s their fault the program is failing.
“What is unacceptable is that our government a year ago committed to staffing this program 24-7 and it hasn’t happened, and I hold the health system leaders for this area accountable for that,” Gordon said Tuesday.
Yikes. In fact, the reason the program is understaffed is because the Tories gutted hospital budgets over the past seven years. That has trickled down to all areas of operations, including staffing. It’s not the bureaucrats’ fault.
Pledging to fully staff a program is all well and good. However, if there are no nurses to fill the positions — owing to funding cuts, low morale and the province’s loathsome treatment of front-line professionals — the commitment is meaningless.
Provincial funding for acute care services grew only 2.7 per cent between 2017 and 2021, when the Tories closed three emergency departments in Winnipeg and consolidated acute care hospitals. That’s well-below inflation; in real dollars, it’s a deep cut.
In 2018-19, the Tories demanded regional health authorities find $83 million in “savings” — right in the middle of the largest transformation of hospital operations in the province’s history.
Those cuts, and the human resources disaster that plagued the consolidation process, are the main causes of today’s staffing shortages, which is crippling patient care. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the problem, but the exodus of front-line professionals began long before the first novel coronavirus case showed up in Manitoba.
For Gordon to now blame senior officials at Shared Health, which oversees HSC, for the staffing crisis borders on comical.
It’s not the first time the minister has taken an us-versus-them approach with the government bureaucracy. A year ago, she publicly demanded senior bureaucrats “fix” the ER crisis, even though it was her own government that caused it.
“One of the things I’m doing is insist they fix it,” Gordon said in April 2022. “My expectation as a health minister is that they will address this.”
Never mind the fact long ER wait times have been caused mainly by admitted patients piling up in emergency departments who can’t get a bed on a medical ward. They can’t get a bed because there’s a severe shortage of nurses and other front-line staff.
These are the long-term consequences of underfunding hospitals and forcing them to find “savings,” while simultaneously shutting down ERs, rushing a hospital consolidation process and forcing thousands of health-care staff to reapply for jobs, some of which they were not qualified to fill.
The fallout was predicted.
Not surprisingly, the ER problems Gordon demanded health officials fix a year ago are still here. ER wait times are just as long today as they were in early 2022.
Gordon may not know it — maybe nobody told her — but calling out senior bureaucrats publicly usually comes back to bite politicians.
Gordon may not know it – maybe nobody told her – but calling out senior bureaucrats publicly usually comes back to bite politicians.
Cabinet ministers rely on the expertise of senior civil servants to provide them with policy options, critical information and strategies to implement the government’s agenda. They need senior bureaucrats to brief them on what is going on in their departments.
Cabinet can make changes if senior administrators aren’t doing their jobs, but berating civil servants in public and blaming them for cabinet’s own errors isn’t usually a good idea.
At best, it discourages public servants from enthusiastically supporting government’s agenda. At worst, the bureaucracy can turn on its political masters. There are subtle but effective ways of doing so.
Competent cabinet ministers understand that delicate balance. They know the difference between holding senior officials accountable behind closed doors and chastising them in public. Gordon appears to have no idea.
The fact Premier Heather Stefanson still hasn’t moved Gordon out of the health portfolio (she’s been there since then-premier Brian Pallister appointed her in 2021) is one of the many signs the Tory government has long-surpassed its expiry date.
It’s as if Stefanson already knows that, and is waving the white flag.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.