Manitoba, meet Premier Kelvin Goertzen, the reluctant premier.
The veteran MLA from Steinbach was sworn in Wednesday as the province's 23rd premier. It was an ironic moment for a whole variety of reasons, not least of which is the fact he never once showed any interest in taking over the top job.
Goertzen is undoubtedly one of the smartest and most articulate ministers in former premier Brian Pallister's government. He is a master of legislative rules and procedures. A relentless partisan who can trade verbal haymakers with any opposition MLA. And since 2016, a capable cabinet minister who has taken on some of the most challenging portfolios.
He is also defined by a rather unusual characteristic: in a world that is permeated by unbridled ambition, Goertzen does not seek greater power or self-aggrandizement.
Throughout his career, he has been presented with numerous opportunities to move up the political hierarchy.
First elected in 2003, Goertzen spent a remarkable 13 years in opposition and served three different party leaders. During that time, he was frequently mentioned as a potential candidate to lead the party. And in each instance, he quickly and definitively dismissed those suggestions.
In 2013, Conservative MP Vic Toews retired from politics, leaving the federal Provencher riding up for grabs. Goertzen had first right of refusal on the nomination which, given Tory dominance in that part of Manitoba, was tantamount to winning a seat in the House of Commons.
New premier tired of the acrimonyClick to Expand
Posted: 2:58 PM Sep. 1, 2021
Newly minted, temporary Manitoba Premier Kelvin Goertzen is striking a new tone, scrapping controversial legislation and pledging to listen to Manitobans.
“There is lots of division in Manitoba,” Goertzen said Wednesday, hours after being sworn in as premier.
He declined the opportunity and remained firmly rooted in his provincial seat.
When his Progressive Conservative party under Pallister won the 2016 election, he was widely touted for all manner of front-bench cabinet roles. However, behind the scenes, he lobbied hard to be appointed as Speaker. In a stroke of ultimate irony, Goertzen was given the health ministry instead while MLA Myrna Driedger, who desperately wanted to be health minister, was tapped to serve as Speaker.
So, how does a man who has done a good job but not spent much time angling for a better job suddenly end up with the top job?
In politics, as it is in life, timing is everything. After it became clear the party was not going to allow Pallister to linger as premier into the fall, it was essential to find an interim leader who was up to the job but not interested in campaigning for the leadership. Goertzen checks both boxes.
But he brings more to the role of interim leader and premier than convenience. He has the experience and temperament to actually start the process of rebooting the Tory brand, something the party desperately needs after five years of Pallister's scorched-earth governing style.
Goertzen made no bones Wednesday about the fact that he was going to be different — much different — than the last guy.
"Being a minister of the Crown, it's nice. Being premier, I'm honoured. But those are not the roles that I aspire to." – Kelvin Goertzen
For nearly an hour, Goertzen took questions from reporters and provided elegant, confident and — most importantly — credible answers. He did not attack anyone, did not blame anybody else for his government's mistakes and never once used political hyperbole to claim some sort of hollow victory.
In other words, in his very first public appearance as premier, he was everything that Pallister was not over five years.
You could tell that Goertzen was leaning into the contrast that was materializing between him and Pallister. He talked about the importance of projecting calm and respect while avoiding "conflict and animosity." He pledged to meet with as many interested parties as possible in the 60 days he will serve as first minister, so that he can make a full report to the next leader and premier about what Manitobans really think.
As for his decision to step forward to fill the role of first minister at a critical moment in Manitoba political history, he was a triumph in humility.
As he has done before, Goertzen spoke about his family's humble beginnings. His father, an alcoholic, died at 33 when Goertzen was just 11. He and his mother and sister moved into provincial housing for a time after his father's death. Those experiences, he said, have motivated him to make "being a good father and a good husband" his main jobs.
"Being a minister of the Crown, it's nice," he said. "Being premier, I'm honoured. But those are not the roles that I aspire to."
It should be noted that Goertzen has not escaped controversy in his political career.
In opposition, he took flack for protesting an NDP government bill that compelled school divisions to allow LGBTTQ+ support groups. He has been involved in disputes with local LGBTTQ+ activists who decried his decision to shun the local Pride parade. And, for all intents and purposes, he was in full support of all of Pallister's most controversial and unpopular policies.
It should also be noted that Goertzen's first news conference was not without its awkward moments. His failure to take action against Tory MLA James Teitsma — who likened vaccine mandates to residential schools, forced sterilizations and internment camps — was not his finest moment in his first few hours as premier.
But for now, let's tip our hats to Kelvin Goertzen. He may not be in the job for a long time, but it seems as if he's going to be there just long enough for a good time.
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.