A high-profile Tory cabinet minister announced his sudden retirement Monday, surprising political observers and raising questions about the political future of the Progressive Conservatives in Manitoba.
News of Natural Resources Minister Scott Fielding’s retirement from politics Monday caught many off guard.
"I hadn’t seen it coming," University of Manitoba political studies professor Christopher Adams said after Fielding announced on Twitter he was quitting cabinet at day’s end Monday and vacating his Kirkfield Park seat within two weeks.
"But at the same time, on reflection, I’m not surprised that certain people like Scott Fielding have decided to not run in the next election. I have been expecting announcements like this from members of the PC caucus and cabinet as we get closer to the October 2023 election."
Successive polls have suggested the party will lose the next provincial election.
There has been speculation for more than a month that Families Minister Rochelle Squires will tender her resignation to Premier Heather Stefanson and enter the race to become Winnipeg’s next mayor in the fall.
Fielding, who served as a Winnipeg city councillor from 2006 to 2014 before being elected to the legislature in 2016 and working his way to a top cabinet post, tweeted Monday that he was ready "to retire from politics."
In a press release issued Monday Stefanson wished Fielding well and said he is leaving government "to pursue opportunities in the private sector."
Fielding, who is in his early 50s, posted photos of his wife and three children on social media Monday, and wrote about the sacrifices to family life that public service requires.
"I really am looking forward to spending more quality time with my family and friends as I start a new chapter in my life," he said.
Fielding departs as minister of natural resources and northern development and the minister responsible for Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries. Less than two weeks ago, he introduced a bill that would expand private liquor sales in Manitoba. His ministerial duties will be taken over temporarily by Indigenous Reconciliation and Northern Relations Minister Alan Lagimodiere, Stefanson’s press release said.
Squires hasn’t yet announced if she will run for mayor. No one from cabinet communications responded to requests Monday for comment from her or from Fielding on his last day in cabinet.
There was no response from Stefanson’s press secretary to a question about whether the premier intends to canvas the rest of her cabinet to see if there are others planning to leave.
"With 16 months until the election, it is not too early to have individual conversations with PC MLAs both to ensure unity, improve morale and strengthen motivation to achieve as much of a political recovery as possible," said University of Manitoba political studies professor emeritus Paul Thomas.
"Part of those conversations would be inquiries about whether individuals intend to run again. Such conversations would be an opportunity to persuade strong performers to stick around for another election."
After former premier Brian Pallister’s resignation last summer, Fielding, who was finance minister at the time, briefly signalled his interest in running for the Tories’ leadership.
After Stefanson’s narrow and then contested leadership win over Shelly Glover, she shuffled him out of finance to natural resources, a move that was seen as a demotion.
"I think he thought of himself as a potential leader of the party and premier," Thomas said. "Others saw him as a solid, reliable member of the team who could handle major portfolios but lacked the skills and personality for the top job."
Losing the finance portfolio may or may not have been disappointing, he said.
"If he had already decided to leave, he may have been grateful for a reduced workload as he transitioned into a new career. Staying in finance would have potentially exposed him to allegations that he was making decisions on taxes and spending that would favour a future employer with whom he was negotiating employment."
“He’s not leaving the legislative assembly because he fears that he won’t be re-elected. I think he’s probably leaving because he’s had enough of politics and he might have an offer from somebody in the private sector.” — University of Manitoba political studies professor emeritus Paul Thomas
The likelihood that the PCs were headed to the opposition benches after the next election probably wasn’t very appealing to Fielding, either, said Thomas.
"He’s not leaving the legislative assembly because he fears that he won’t be re-elected," agreed Adams. "I think he’s probably leaving because he’s had enough of politics and he might have an offer from somebody in the private sector."
Some Tory MLAs in traditional swing ridings — including south Winnipeg seats held by cabinet ministers Sarah Guillemard, Audrey Gordon and back-bench MLA Janice Morley-Lecomte — face a greater risk of losing if they run again, Adams said.
"I’m not saying they’ll be defeated," he said. "I’m saying that they’re vulnerable, and some of those people who will feel vulnerable might choose not to run again."
A byelection must be held within six months of the date Fielding vacates his Kirkfield Park seat. It’s considered to be a Tory stronghold, save for 2007-2016, when the NDP’s Sharon Blady held the seat. She lost to Fielding in 2016.
With Fielding stepping aside now, the party has time to find a nominee to get elected and established as an incumbent ahead of the next general election due on or before Oct. 3, 2023, Adams said.
NDP Leader Wab Kinew wished Fielding well Monday and said his resignation signals what lies ahead for Stefanson’s government.
"I think it’s very telling that PC MLAs have lost faith" in their government, Kinew told the Free Press, adding the party is ready fora general election.
In the meantime, MLAs should be focused on the needs of the Manitobans they were elected to represent, "not focused on exit strategies," he said.
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.