Opinion

Is Premier Heather Stefanson ghosting Manitobans?

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This article was published 15/11/2021 (277 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Is Premier Heather Stefanson ghosting Manitobans?

Given the complete lack of public profile she has had since late October, when she won a party election to lead the Progressive Conservatives and the province, it's become a fair question.

Stefanson has turned up here and there. Since taking over for former leader Brian Pallister, she had an inaugural news conference Nov. 2, at which she did reward legislative reporters with some quality time.

She's done a few interviews — including a chat with a controversial FM radio host once fired for debasing trans people — and made a brief appearance on Remembrance Day but has otherwise been, literally and figuratively, a ghostly presence in the political arena.

Normally, someone coming in to take over the most powerful office in Manitoba would need a bit of time to get acclimatized. However, given all that's going on, Stefanson could have, maybe should have, been more visible in the last two weeks.

Heather Stefanson speaks to the media after being sworn in as Manitoba's 24th premier on Nov. 2, one of the last times she's been out in front of the media. (David Lipnowski / The Canadian Press files)

Heather Stefanson speaks to the media after being sworn in as Manitoba's 24th premier on Nov. 2, one of the last times she's been out in front of the media. (David Lipnowski / The Canadian Press files)

It was particularly important to see and hear Stefanson address the public health crisis threatening to boil over in southern Manitoba and the faculty strike at the University of Manitoba. In both instances, it is unclear what government is going to do; having Stefanson explain the broader strategy for both challenges should have been among the first things on her to-do list.

Even so, it raises an interesting dilemma that often confronts first ministers.

When they are the only face of government, they are often criticized for taking on too much and eclipsing their cabinet ministers. However, if they are rarely seen on the front lines of a crisis, like the COVID-19 pandemic, they have abandoned their duties as the head of government.

If we're being frank, it's one of the worst double standards media use to generate a daily news story. However, political leaders often leave themselves open to this kind of criticism by taking an either (the premier) or (the minister) strategy for public appearances.

When it comes to the pandemic and the challenges right now, Manitobans should have seen and heard both Stefanson and Health Minister Audrey Gordon. To Stefanson's detriment, she has allowed Gordon to face all of the tough questions.

So, if she's not attending public health news conferences, scrumming with legislative reporters or trying to broker a deal between striking faculty members and the U of M, what has Stefanson been doing?

Heather Stefanson (right) is sworn in as Manitoba's 24th premier by Lt.-Gov. Janice Filmon on Nov. 2. (David Lipnowski / The Canadian Press files)

Heather Stefanson (right) is sworn in as Manitoba's 24th premier by Lt.-Gov. Janice Filmon on Nov. 2. (David Lipnowski / The Canadian Press files)

You can be sure she has been prepping for the upcoming speech from the throne.

Somewhat surprisingly, Stefanson has decided to launch a new, seven-day legislative session on Nov. 23. Given the legislature was recalled earlier this fall to deal with some nagging matters, Stefanson could have put off a throne speech until next spring, used it as a springboard for her first budget and no one would have raised much of a stink.

Instead, Stefanson will face the slings and arrows of question period sooner rather than later. It's a high-risk strategy that could produce a high reward if she demonstrates calm and competence in the face of opposition barbs.

Stefanson has also been rebuilding her political staff.

Jordan Sisson, manager of Stefanson's leadership campaign, is the new chief of staff; Brad Salyn moves from communications to join Bonnie Staples-Lyon, former director of communications to then-premier Gary Filmon, as senior advisers; and former CBC reporter Sean Kavanagh has been hired as director of communications.

Those appointments prompted some departures. Stefanson decided to part ways with David McLaughlin, who oversaw the last two PC election campaigns and most recently served as clerk of the executive council for Pallister. He was replaced by Don Leitch, who served in that role during the Filmon years.

Heather Stefanson has decided to launch a new, seven-day legislative session on Nov. 23. (David Lipnowski / The Canadian Press files)

Heather Stefanson has decided to launch a new, seven-day legislative session on Nov. 23. (David Lipnowski / The Canadian Press files)

Gone as well is Jonathan Scarth (another Filmon-era political staffer who came back to work with Pallister), leaving his position as principal secretary to the premier to pursue opportunities outside the provincial government.

Put it all together and it's an interesting mix of veterans who have been out of government for many years and newcomers with lots of loyalty to Stefanson but little or no experience managing issues at the highest levels of provincial government.

Which brings us back to the throne speech.

In a news release announcing the start of the new session, Stefanson promised to unveil an agenda with a focus on "reconciliation, health care, education, the economy and jobs." That's a pretty broad spectrum of issues to address less than a month into the job.

She is also giving off signals her agenda will be much less ambitious than her news release suggested. During the Tory leadership race, Stefanson said additional investments in elective surgeries and diagnostic services would be required immediately to address backlogs.

In her news release, however, she referenced the creation of a task force to advise on both of those problems. Creating a task force to deal with an immediate threat was a favourite tactic of the former premier. Which is to say, is a poor substitute for action.

With the next election slated for 2023, it's hard to say conclusively anything Stefanson does now will seal her fate with voters two years from now.

On the other hand, a bad start is not going to make the job of re-election any easier.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

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.