A controversial Tory MLA, who wouldn’t publicly divulge her vaccination status until she was turned away from a restaurant last week, was given the honour of responding to the throne speech in the legislature Wednesday.
Janice Morley-Lecomte told the house it was an honour to be chosen. She congratulated Heather Stefanson for becoming the first female premier of Manitoba, and thanked health-care workers for going "above and beyond" during the COVID-19 crisis that’s disrupted the lives of Manitobans.
"The past months have proven that Manitobans are resilient and strong in times of crisis," Morley-Lecomte said in her speech. Health care, the PC backbencher said, has been the government’s priority for 20 months.
However, instead of standing with her PC caucus and other MLAs who publicly disclosed their vaccination status, and urged Manitobans to get the jab for their sake and to protect the health care system, she and Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler said their personal health information is private. Even after she told a closed committee meeting in October that she had been vaccinated, Morley-Lecomte refused to divulge that information publicly.
The Seine River MLA didn’t confirm her vaccination status until last week — after she was publicly called out on it when she tried to enter a Winnipeg restaurant without either the plastic government proof-of-vaccination card or its QR code uploaded to her phone, as required by public health orders to access most non-essential services.
Opposition members of the legislature say the PC government’s choice of Morley-Lecomte for the honour sends the wrong signal at a time when the province is battling the fourth deadly wave of the pandemic.
"I think it’s really irresponsible," said NDP house leader, Nahanni Fontaine. "It signals that either the premier is clueless on how that looks, having someone like Janice (Morley-Lecomte) second it, or she’s sending a signal to those constituents who are anti-vax, anti-mask, that she doesn’t see a problem with that — that she’s still in support of that segment of the population."
Prior to Tuesday’s throne speech, Stefanson said she’d spoken to Morley-Lecomte and that the issue had been resolved. She wouldn’t say she was disappointed by the backbencher’s actions. Neither the premier’s office nor the PC caucus responded Thursday when asked why Morley-Lecomte was chosen to address the throne speech.
A veteran political watcher said it’s tradition to have government backbenchers move and second the address in reply to the throne speech, and that she may have been chosen before the recent negative media attention.
"There is both symbolism and practical politics involved with the custom," said Paul Thomas, University of Manitoba political studies professor emeritus. Designating backbenchers to lead off debate recognizes that all MLAs are meant to be equal and that they all add value to the performance of the legislature, he said Thursday.
"Politically, following an election, governments often chose newly elected MLAs to allow them an early opportunity to thank voters and boast about their constituencies," Thomas said.
"It may be that over the two terms of the Pallister government, other backbench MLAs were given a small boost to their profile and it was thought to be (Morley-Lecomte’s) turn," he said.
"The fact that she represents a swing riding, that the NDP under (former premier Gary) Doer pried away from the PCs, may have been a factor in the decision," said Thomas. The next election, in October 2023, is not that far away, and the PCs are in recovery mode after bad polling numbers under Brian Pallister, he said.
Stefanson won last month’s PC leadership race "by the skin of her teeth," said Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont. She needs Morley-Lecomte as well as the more than 8,000 party members who voted for Stefanson’s rival, Shelly Glover, and disqualified leadership candidate, Ken Lee, who opposed pandemic restrictions, Lamont said. Lee has had close ties to Morley-Lecomte, acting as the official agent for her provincial election campaigns.
"This is a government that’s still trying to hold on by appeasing people who have been undermining the pandemic since day one month," Lamont said.
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.