Opinion

If Premier Heather Stefanson’s first major cabinet shuffle were a movie, what movie would it be?

If Premier Heather Stefanson’s first major cabinet shuffle were a movie, what movie would it be?

Based on the preponderance of confounding moves she made, you could go with Dazed and Confused.

Then again, considering how this shuffle did little more than relocate deck chairs on a quickly sinking Good Ship Tory, Titanic might work.

However, when you look at the consequences of the shuffle on party and caucus solidarity, another film comes to mind.

Welcome to the Hunger Games, Manitoba Tory-style.

The cabinet shuffle was the cannon shot that started this version of the Hunger Games, sending Tory cabinet ministers and MLAs scrambling to get their hands on the commodities necessary for political survival. Increasingly, they will be pitted against each other until the 2023 election comes around.

Ralph Eichler was a supporter of Stefanson’s leadership bid and had given no indication he was ready to go. (Jessica Lee / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Ralph Eichler was a supporter of Stefanson’s leadership bid and had given no indication he was ready to go. (Jessica Lee / Winnipeg Free Press files)

It didn’t have to turn out this way.

Stefanson, no doubt, intended the reorganization to be her first real opportunity to refresh the party brand and regain some tactical advantages to boost her re-election chances.

It was none of that; really more of a triumph in mixed messages and betrayed confidences that will, in all likelihood, fracture any sense of party unity.

The confounding strategy starts with the premier’s surprising decision to drop veterans Ralph Eichler (agriculture) and Cathy Cox (sport, culture and heritage), both of whom were on the high side of the cabinet performance median.

There have been rumours Cox may not run again in 2023, and that may have been enough to trigger her departure, despite a profile as a solid and reliable minister.

On the other hand, party sources said Eichler — arguably the most influential rural minister in the government — had given no indication he was ready to cash in his chips, and was gobsmacked that he was jettisoned.

Although he was among the closest allies of former premier Brian Pallister, Eichler was also a strong supporter of Stefanson’s leadership bid who rolled up his sleeves and provided ground-level support to her ultimately successful campaign. Sources confirmed he had no inkling he was going to be dropped.

Why was Scott Fielding moved to natural resources from the finance portfolio? (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Why was Scott Fielding moved to natural resources from the finance portfolio? (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Equally inexplicable was Stefanson’s decision to demote Scott Fielding to natural resources from the coveted finance portfolio, where he served admirably, despite drawing a bad fiscal hand over the past two years.

Fielding considered running for the leadership last fall, but stood down at Stefanson’s request. Unless he served notice he will not be a candidate in 2023, removing him from finance at this delicate stage of the pandemic is a rash and unproductive move. And no way to reward him for abandoning his leadership ambitions.

Or how about the astounding decision to let Alan Lagimodiere continue as minister of Indigenous reconciliation and northern relations?

Lagimodiere had a disastrous debut last year when, only minutes after he was sworn in, he defended the residential school system, sparking widespread condemnation from the Indigenous community. Stefanson could have replaced him with Eileen Clarke, his predecessor, who resigned the Indigenous affairs portfolio in protest over Pallister’s incendiary comments about European settlers several days earlier. Clarke returned to cabinet, but in another role.

Stefanson claimed Lagimodiere had redeemed himself by meeting with, and learning from, Indigenous leaders. Rather than forgiving Lagimodiere on behalf of Indigenous people, Stefanson should have found another minister to fill the role so that she, as premier, could find some redemption with Indigenous leaders.

The only decision that makes sense was leaving Audrey Gordon in health.

It is true the government’s credibility on pandemic matters has not improved with Gordon in the portfolio. But it’s unfair to pin public disdain for this government’s tragic, hands-off approach to tackling the Omicron wave on Gordon alone. It doesn’t appear she is the solution the government’s pandemic response woes, but neither is she the main problem.

Leaving Audrey Gordon as health minister makes sense. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Leaving Audrey Gordon as health minister makes sense. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Gordon has been, in general, more credible than past health ministers. And that includes Stefanson, who was an unmitigated disaster when she held the portfolio last year during the third wave when resources were overwhelmed and dozens of critical-care patients had to be airlifted out of province. The whole suggestion that a new face in health could have changed the public’s perception of the Tories’ pandemic response is naive and wishful thinking.

By design, cabinet shuffles create more losers than winners. Still, when a first minister makes moves that do not lead to clear strategic or political advantages, it can erode internal support for both the leader and the governing party.

When Pallister stepped down, he left an elected caucus that had become despondent because of his lone-wolf leadership style; he did not seek input from others, and let it be known that ministers and MLAs would be better seen and not heard. Ultimately, that approach convinced the caucus to rise up and push him out.

With her clumsy cabinet moves, Stefanson is exposing the fault lines left from the Pallister years, no doubt prompting members of her caucus — at least, those sticking around to run in 2023 — to focus more on getting re-elected themselves, and less about forming government. That’s where the Hunger Games come in.

It should be noted that there is one important difference between this edition of the Hunger Games and the cinematic version.

In the film version, the last competitor standing is considered the winner.

In politics, the last politician standing in a governing party is leader of the official Opposition.

dan.lett@winnipegfreepress.com

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.