Premier Heather Stefanson’s most important decision when she shuffles her cabinet in the coming weeks will be choosing Manitoba’s next health minister.
It’s not that portfolios such as education, justice and municipal affairs are not important — they are. However, the next provincial election (scheduled for October 2023) will almost certainly be fought on how to fix the province’s rapidly deteriorating health-care system.
The decision — including whether to keep Health Minister Audrey Gordon in the role — could make the difference between the Tories winning or losing.
Stefanson is expected to announce her first major cabinet shuffle as early as this month. It will be a chance for the rookie premier to put her stamp on government and add some fresh faces to a cabinet inherited from the now-retired Brian Pallister.
She likely won’t make wholesale change, but several key portfolios are expected to have new ministers. (Stefanson has only made one such move since taking over as premier in November: dumping infrastructure minister Ron Schuler for his refusal to support government’s COVID-19 vaccine policies and giving the portfolio to Reg Helwer, who also serves as central services minister).
Stefanson may promote one or two Winnipeg MLAs from the backbench to cabinet in an effort to boost the Tories’ sagging support in the capital. She could also appoint a labour minister, which Manitoba hasn’t had since 2016. (Pallister’s decision to dissolve the ministry was widely seen as a slight against organized labour.)
The education portfolio is ripe for change, mostly to put a new face on the department after Bill 64 — proposed legislation that would have eliminated most elected school boards — was shelved in October.
Also, if Stefanson is serious about the issue, she will replace Indigenous Reconciliation and Northern Relations Minister Alan Lagimodiere with someone more suitable for the job (preferably an MLA with a better grasp of the harms caused by residential schools).
In the end, however, the health portfolio will be the most critical file.
Manitoba’s health-care system was in trouble long before the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020. The Tories’ poorly executed hospital consolidation plan, which began in 2017, resulted in staff shortages, a lack of bed capacity, and long waiting lists — all of which were exacerbated under the strain of the novel coronavirus.
The biggest challenge now facing the Tories is trying to reverse as much of that damage as possible — including reducing record surgical backlogs — before the next election.
The question for Stefanson: does she keep Gordon in place to lead that charge or find a more suitable candidate? Whoever she chooses will likely be in place until the upcoming provincial vote.
Pallister appointed Gordon to cabinet a year ago, as minister of mental health. She was elevated to health minister in August 2021 to replace Stefanson, when the Tuxedo MLA announced she was running for the Progressive Conservative party leadership.
Gordon’s track record hasn’t been stellar. She had nearly five months to expand hospital capacity to prepare for another pandemic surge, yet elderly patients are still being shipped out of Winnipeg hospitals to rural communities and elective surgeries continue to be cancelled.
When questioned in November about a lack of enforcement of public health orders in the Southern Health region, Gordon said concerned people should call the tip line.
Under her watch, COVID-19 hospitalizations are again soaring, approaching record levels.
That’s as much the premier’s fault as anyone’s for refusing to bring in more robust public health measures prior to Christmas. Nevertheless, Gordon is probably not the health minister Stefanson wants in place over the next 21 months before voters go to the polls.
Is it Finance Minister Scott Fielding’s turn to take on the challenge? How about Families Minister Rochelle Squires or Conservation and Climate Minister Sarah Guillemard?
It’s doubtful Education Minister Cliff Cullen, who struggled to implement public school reform and failed to bring in measures to make schools safer during the pandemic, would be a good choice.
Whoever Stefanson chooses will have their work cut out for them.
The PC party’s fortunes at the ballot box will be riding on it.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.