Opinion

The heroic medical professionals are demanding a day of reckoning for Premier Heather Stefanson and her Progressive Conservative government. If past practice is any indication, those demands will fall on deaf ears.

The heroic medical professionals are demanding a day of reckoning for Premier Heather Stefanson and her Progressive Conservative government. If past practice is any indication, those demands will fall on deaf ears.

The term "reckoning" means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. In a political context, it generally means a process by which government is held accountable for its performance or policies. It is also used as political shorthand for "punishment," the day at which opposition critics or voters hold government accountable.

<p>MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES </p>
Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson and her ministers like to tell Manitobans there is no “playbook” to guide pandemic management.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson and her ministers like to tell Manitobans there is no “playbook” to guide pandemic management.

In the context of the pandemic, however, it can also mean an independent review of how, why and when key decisions were made, to learn from past mistakes. And let’s not mince words here: a review is essential for a province that has seen some of the worst outbreaks on this continent.

Manitoba has the second-highest deaths per capita of all provinces. You can juggle the numbers as much as you want, but that one metric confirms that Manitoba has been among the worst provinces in terms of overall pandemic response.

Manitoba has the second–highest deaths per capita of all provinces.

An independent review gives government an opportunity to demonstrate it can own and learn from the mistakes that have contributed to this sorry record. Would Stefanson support such a review?

Last November, after the NDP publicly called for a commission of inquiry into the pandemic response, Stefanson could only say that with a fourth wave now upon us, she didn’t really have the time to dwell on past performance.

That could turn out to be a rather fateful perspective. The premier must know that even if she continues to refuse to undertake an independent review, there is a possibility that one may be foisted upon her.

Manitoba auditor general Tyson Shtykalo is currently performing audits of the vaccine rollout and management of the K-12 public education system during the pandemic. We don’t know yet how deep these audits will drill, or when they will be completed.

But if Shtykalo wants to perform the deep dive, he will be in good company; auditors general in other parts of the country are stepping up to measure government performance and accountability.

Ontario has been the most active, with auditor general Bonnie Lysyk having already produced six special audit reports on management of expenditures, long-term care, overall preparedness, emergency management and outbreak planning.

Bonnie Lysyk, Auditor General of Ontario, has already produced six special audit reports including management of expenditures, long-term care, and overall preparedness.

FRANK GUNN / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Bonnie Lysyk, Auditor General of Ontario, has already produced six special audit reports including management of expenditures, long-term care, and overall preparedness.

The Alberta auditor general has promised a broad review, while the New Brunswick auditor has already released an audit of government economic supports.

What would an audit look at here? The voices calling for an independent review are united in their concern the Tory government has ignored the advice they are getting from in-house medical and scientific experts.

The PC government has been incorrigible when it comes to its pandemic strategy. Nothing — not demands from front-line health-care professionals, condemnation from experts outside government or even hundreds of largely preventable deaths — has convinced the Tories to budge from their "least-restrictive means" strategy.

That stubborn refusal to change tack would seem to be fertile ground for Manitoba’s auditor general to start digging. If government allows him to dig.

That stubborn refusal to change tack would seem to be fertile ground for Manitoba’s auditor general to start digging. If government allows him to dig.

Last week, Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba’s chief provincial public health officer, claimed any advice he or other medical or scientific experts provide is "privileged," which is to say, confidential.

In general, all "advice" to cabinet (executive council) provided by any member of the bureaucracy can be labelled privileged and kept from the prying eyes of the news media and public. That is not to say that it must be held back; government always has the prerogative to release any advice or information it receives.

And that is where we circle back to accountability. Stefanson and her ministers like to tell Manitobans there is no "playbook" to guide pandemic management. Her suggestion is that because we’ve never experienced this kind of crisis, there is no right and wrong.

That is a colossal cop-out. Yes, COVID-19 is the greatest public-health crisis in more than 100 years. However, near misses with influenza and SARS, plus a growing body of knowledge around killer viruses, has given us quite a lot of information about what we should have been doing to prepare for a pandemic, and how we should have responded after it arrived.

The fact is we didn’t prepare and we seem to have ignored best practices in our response.

<p>JAE C HONG / ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE</p>
The fact is we didn’t prepare (for a pandemic) and we seem to have ignored best practices in our response.

JAE C HONG / ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE

The fact is we didn’t prepare (for a pandemic) and we seem to have ignored best practices in our response.

Even worse, Manitoba got caught with it’s health-care funding pants down when the pandemic hit. Five years of Pallister-inducted austerity left the health-care system unable to deal with a crisis. That is also something that needs to be within the scope of any future review or audit.

If Stefanson performs a risk-reward analysis, she will see that she has as much or more to gain by throwing open the curtains on the pandemic response than she does to lose. Voters often respond positively to political leaders who demonstrate a genuine commitment to accountability.

If Stefanson performs a risk–reward analysis, she will see that she has as much or more to gain by throwing open the curtains on the pandemic response than she does to lose.

Stefanson should also know that if she doesn’t trigger a review, the NDP will if — big if here — it should form government following the election in 2023.

The public has largely lost confidence in the PC government’s pandemic response. If Stefanson takes the time to study the political tea leaves, she will see that a full and independent review isn’t a threat. It might be her only lifeline.

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.