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Dan Lett | Not for Attribution
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Fair and unfair criticism
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Fair and unfair criticism

“Do what you feel in your heart to be right — you’ll be criticized anyway.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

Journalists don’t always treat politicians fairly. But that doesn’t mean we’re wrong.

The Macro

I think it’s fair to acknowledge that not all of the criticism we journalists level at politicians is fair. Criticism is a commodity journalists have in endless supply. At times, we can dish it out with reckless abandon.

Sometimes, we criticize politicians for not doing things they really couldn’t or shouldn’t be doing. Other times, we blame them for stuff they have no control over. And my favorite: I support what you did, but I’m upset about how you did it.

That last scenario is at the heart of our coverage and this commentary about Premier Heather Stefanson’s decision to expel liberty-loving Tory MLA Ron Schuler from her cabinet.

Springfield-Ritchot MLA and former Infrastructure minister Ron Schuler. (File/Winnipeg Free Press)

Schuler is without a doubt an interesting study in political foolishness. A veteran MLA in one of the safest Tory seats in Manitoba, Schuler last year indulged in a politically untenable and ultimately pointless game of cat-and-mouse with journalists and his own party over his vaccine status.

The Free Press, along with other media outlets, asked all 57 MLAs in the Manitoba Legislature if they had been vaccinated. After some back and forth, we found out two holdouts were Tories Janice Morley-Lecomte and Schuler.

I’ll fast-forward to the punchline on this one: turns out that both were vaccinated but declined to tell us because they did not want to reveal personal health information. For weeks, they were rightly portrayed as likely anti-vaxxers, enemies in the Stefanson government’s battle to get as Manitobans vaccinated as possible.

When it was ultimately learned they were vaccinated, but simply refused to say so, you could hear the pot starting to bubble in the premier’s office.

Stefanson has inherited a government, and a province, that is reeling from the pandemic. The last thing she needs is a minister of the Crown doing anything to undermine public confidence in COVID-19 vaccines.

Schuler’s big secret was ultimately revealed on December 16, the day after Stefanson decided to impose a vaccine mandate on all visitors (including all MLAs) to the Manitoba legislative building. Schuler held a news conference at the legislature, which pretty much confirmed he was vaccinated.

Quick aside about the “personal health information” canard: In a pandemic, facing an existential threat that can only be truly alleviated by getting vaccinated, your vaccine status is not a private matter. It is an essential part of collective security. Any claims to the contrary are legally and philosophically preposterous.

So, Schuler saw enough personal value in COVID-19 vaccines to get vaccinated, but refused to tell anyone. Stefanson’s decision to turf him from cabinet was completely appropriate, even if the timing was a bit off.

Premier Heather Stefanson. (John Woods/Free Press file)

I pressed Stefanson’s office to explain why she waited to do something that was clearly needed months ago. Here is the response I got from her communications people:

“Mr. Schuler fulfilled the requirement to attend cabinet meetings in the legislature. 
I expect all of my cabinet colleagues to lead by example and uphold government policy.  

Mr. Schuler’s public messaging has not been consistent with the spirit of our government’s efforts to encourage all Manitobans to get fully vaccinated."

NOTE TO READERS: here is where I’ll dabble in that “like-what-you-did-but-didn’t-like-how-you-did-it” strain of criticism.

Schuler spent months undermining the Tory government’s messaging on vaccines and was ignored, first by former Premier Brian Pallister and then by Stefanson. With the Tories facing a significant deficit in public support, the last thing the governing party needs is rogue MLAs and cabinet ministers playing silly buggers over vaccine status. But that’s what Schuler and Morley-Lecomte did.

And Stefanson dithered.

Waiting a full two weeks after we learned Schuler’s true vaccine status to remove him from cabinet is two weeks two long. The right decision, yes, but the delay is rightly positioned as yet another example of a government that cannot act urgently or decisively when it comes to the pandemic.

Of greater concern, there has been no discipline for other MLAs who hid their vaccine status or said and did things that were completely contrary to the government’s messaging.

Morley-Lecomte was busted in the court of public opinion for trying to use her status as an MLA to enter a South Osborne restaurant without proper proof of vaccination.

At last word, she is still a member of the Stefanson government’s caucus.

And then there is James Teitsma, who posted a video to social media last August suggesting vaccine mandates were a human-rights atrocity, and likening them to residential schools. Teitsma is not a cabinet minister, but given Stefanson’s concern about having Tories lead by example, he should be sitting as an independent MLA.

It may still be unfair to criticize Stefanson for waiting to deal with Schuler, but the lack of discipline for Morley-Lecomte and Teitsma is unacceptable.

In the end, political leaders can and should be judged not only on what they do, but how they do it. Just as they must not only lead, but seen to be leading.

Is this criticism of the premier unfair? Perhaps. But it’s not wrong. 

Dan Lett

Dan Lett, Columnist

Dan Lett

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