Hello, my name is Heather Stefanson and I am listening. That pretty much summed up the first day on the job for Manitoba’s newest premier.
Stefanson was sworn in as the province’s 24th premier in front of a small group of family, friends and MLAs at the Manitoba Legislative Building Tuesday. Not surprisingly, Manitoba's first female premier offered few details about her immediate plans.
But she did promise something her predecessor, former premier Brian Pallister, was not very good at. She said she plans to listen; to Manitobans, stakeholder groups, her caucus and cabinet colleagues.
"Manitobans haven’t been listened to for awhile," Stefanson said, an obvious reference to her former boss, whose one-way communication style not only alienated many rank-and-file Manitobans, but rankled people in his own party.
Tuesday wasn’t the day for the nuts and bolts of what Stefanson has planned as premier. Those details, which she's still trying to figure out, will come later, beginning with a throne speech (likely in mid-November).
There will be changes, including in health care and education reform. But as expected, those changes will be incremental.
“Manitobans haven’t been listened to for awhile.” — Heather Stefanson
Stefanson is vowing to repair the damage caused by her predecessor and plans to meet with a wide variety of stakeholder groups, including Indigenous leaders, labour groups and municipalities.
She may even appoint a labour minister for the first time since 2016 (something Pallister refused to do during his 5 1/2 years in office), and said elected school boards (which Pallister sought to eliminate) may have a place in a reformed public school system.
Eliminating elected school boards "was never canvassed out there in the public," said Stefanson. She vowed to consult the public and educators before making any changes to public schools.
Stefanson said she will listen and learn; but eventually she will have to act. And she will have to act sooner rather than later on a number of urgent files — including how to manage growing COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in the low-vaccine areas of the Southern Health region.
Of the 127 new COVID-19 cases announced Tuesday, 50 came from Southern Health, an area that represents 15 per cent of Manitoba's population. Half of the 24 COVID-19 patients in ICU are from Southern Health.
At some point, government will have to make tough decisions about what public health orders are needed in that part of the province to protect the rest of Manitoba, including Winnipeg’s hospital capacity.
Government will also have to take immediate steps to tackle the massive backlog of surgical and diagnostic wait times and repair the damage caused by the Tories' poor planning in health care. That includes how the province executed its hospital consolidation plan over the past four years, which Stefanson acknowledged government didn’t always get right.
One thing Stefanson doesn't deny: many Manitobans have lost trust in her government. How she plans to regain that trust will be a significant challenge between now and the next election, scheduled for 2023. It will take more than just listening; it will require bold action to show Manitobans that government can get the province out of the pandemic, rejuvenate the economy and repair a crippled health-care system. It's a tall order.
Being the "anti-Pallister" premier alone won't be enough. It will require vision and concrete ideas. That’s not something Stefanson has spent a lot of time thinking about, considering a year ago she likely wasn’t even considering running for the premier’s job. She's going to need help from the people around her (the ones who convinced her to run for party leader) to succeed.
"It’s a significant challenge, but we’re ready to take it on," said Stefanson. "We’ll have those discussions with cabinet and caucus and see how we can do that, how can we start to earn the trust of Manitobans."
If they can't, and soon, there's an eager group of New Democrats willing to take over.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.