The public and journalists view cabinet shuffles in dramatically different ways.
For the public, a shuffle is just a photo-op for overstuffed politicians, all patting each other on the back for having had the good fortune to be included in the secret-handshake club of politics. It’s all pomp, circumstance and self-adulation.
For journalists, however, cabinet shuffles are a chance to see who is really in the first minister’s inner circle, whose career is hovering in limbo and who has been sent to the corner with a dunce cap on their head. For reporters, it’s pomp, circumstance and tremendously good gossip.
So, what are we to make of Premier Brian Pallister’s most recent cabinet shuffle? Notwithstanding the low value that most citizens put on these events, there were some pretty interesting storylines.
Before getting into the juicy stuff, it should be noted that Pallister does not have an inner circle, at least not in the conventional sense.
Typically, first ministers lean on a small cadre of senior cabinet ministers who form the cerebral cortex of a government. Pallister does not lean on a group of ministers to guide him in decisions; he famously works alone in forging the substance and direction of his government’s policy.
That said, even Pallister sees the need to design a cabinet that provides a political boost to his government, both now and in the next election. Even if, as suspected, he won’t be around to guide the party.
In the promotion of second-term Fort Richmond MLA Sarah Guillemard and Reg Helwer, who is in his third term representing Brandon West, we can see a solid bit of forethought from the premier.
Both MLAs hold strategically important seats that are coveted by the NDP. Being in cabinet is not an inoculation against a stiff electoral challenge — as witnessed by the defeat of former Crown Services minister Colleen Mayer in St. Vital — but it certainly does strengthen the chances of Guillemard and Helwer retaining their seats.
Helwer’s promotion seems an obvious entry-level job. The newly created portfolio of Central Services is a vague portfolio that the Tory government described as providing oversight for the modernization of government services and oversight of the Civil Service Commission.
The purpose of the former part of his new job is anyone’s guess, really; expect a flurry of initiatives in the coming months that will flesh out his duties. As for the latter designation, the Civil Service Commission is typically a minor role that is added on as a third- or even fourth-tier obligation to a more senior minister.
Guillemard, on the other hand, takes on Conservation and Climate, while also overseeing Efficiency Manitoba, a new Crown corporation. Guillemard’s new portfolio is similar to the Sustainable Development portfolio held by Rochelle Squires, but with some added responsibilities. In other words, it’s a quantum leap in duties for a backbencher.
The odd woman out in this shuffle, to some extent, is Squires, who was shuffled to Municipal Affairs.
In Sustainable Development, she became the province’s point-woman on issues related to climate change. When Pallister inexplicably cancelled plans for a made-in-Manitoba carbon tax, Squires was largely responsible for making it sound like this impetuous policy pivot was all part of the master plan. And it must be said that she did a heroic job with a really horrific task.
Moving Squires to Municipal Affairs is, at best, a lateral move, although there is an argument to be made that it was also a bit of a demotion. Taking the point on discussions with local government is hardly an unimportant role, but it still seems like an odd strategy given that, at least theoretically, Squires is at the centre of the debate over who should succeed Pallister as party leader.
Even putting leadership issues aside, Pallister had an opportunity to elevate another woman to the true front bench of cabinet, which includes portfolios such as Finance, Health, Families, Education and Justice. Right now, only one woman — Families Minister Heather Stefanson — occupies one of those critically important roles.
In this day and age, there really isn’t a good argument for not promoting a capable woman into that front-bench roster, particularly one who represents a chance for the heavily male, predominantly older PC party to appear more contemporary. And although Mayer may have been in the discussion, had she won, there is no doubt that Squires deserved that nod, both because of her gender and because of what she has brought to the job.
Squires not only does more in-person statements than almost any other minister in the Pallister government — a refreshing change from the canned emailed statements that other, less capable ministers use — but she does more of everything: public appearances, speeches and meetings with special interests and citizens.
It could be that Squires was shuffled sideways, or slightly downward, because she is rumoured to be a strong leadership contender.
Tory party insiders report that Pallister has made it clear he does not want to be pushed to retire, and that he is likely to throw his support, either directly or tacitly, behind someone from outside Winnipeg.
Citizens who ignore cabinet shuffles should remember that these are moments when a premier gets to show everyone who they really are, and what kind of image they want for their party.
In this instance, Pallister wants everyone to know that he’s still more confident in men than women. Even a woman who has a very good chance of succeeding him as leader.
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.