Amid plummeting popularity and a COVID-19 crisis hammering the province, Premier Heather Stefanson is expected to put her own stamp on the cabinet she inherited from Brian Pallister as early as Tuesday.

Amid plummeting popularity and a COVID-19 crisis hammering the province, Premier Heather Stefanson is expected to put her own stamp on the cabinet she inherited from Brian Pallister as early as Tuesday.

Stefanson has to keep her rural and small-town base happy and away from fringe candidates, while picking up more urban support in vote-rich Winnipeg and hanging on to suburban swing ridings that, for the last 20 years, have determined which party forms government in the province, experts say.

Swearing-in ceremony Tuesday afternoon

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Manitoba's premier will swear in her new cabinet Tuesday afternoon. 

Premier Heather Stefanson will preside over the swearing-in ceremony at 1 p.m. at the Legislative Building. 

"It’s like being a CEO and coming into the job and looking around at all your team and seeing where things need to be shifted," said University of Manitoba political studies professor Christopher Adams.

An Angus Reid online survey places Stefanson — who was sworn in as premier just 11 weeks ago — as the least-popular premier in the country, with 21 per cent approval.

<p>MIKAELA MACKENZIE / FREE PRESS FILES</p>Insiders and analysts expect the next shuffle will see Cliff Cullen moved out of education.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / FREE PRESS FILES

Insiders and analysts expect the next shuffle will see Cliff Cullen moved out of education.

Of the 482 Manitoba respondents, just one in five said she’s done a good job of handling the pandemic, which is lower than any assessment Pallister received, the pollster said.

"It doesn’t look very good for a new premier," Adams said Monday. After winning the Progressive Conservative leadership on Oct. 30 — and a court challenge by losing rival Shelly Glover — Adams said he expected Stefanson would get a bump in the polls.

"The post-convention bloom is off the rose."

Seventy per cent of the Manitobans surveyed Jan. 7-12 said the province has done a bad job getting the rapid tests to where they are needed, while 75 per cent said it’s done a good job with the vaccine rollout.

Two-in-five Manitobans said they want more public-health restrictions but Stefanson has held back on imposing them, saying on Jan. 12 that "it’s up to Manitobans to look after themselves." On Monday, a record 601 COVID-19 hospitalizations were reported.

<p>MIKE DEAL / FREE PRESS FILES</p>Audrey Gordon is expected to stay put as health minister.

MIKE DEAL / FREE PRESS FILES

Audrey Gordon is expected to stay put as health minister.

The last cabinet shuffle occurred under Pallister on Jan. 5, 2021.

Insiders and analysts expect the next shuffle will see Cliff Cullen moved out of education and Audrey Gordon staying put as health minister. Cullen will be remembered as the cheerleader for unpopular Bill 64 that would’ve eliminated elected school boards if the PC government hadn’t bowed to public pressure and killed it.

Gordon, however, has shown "authenticity and empathy," said Paul Thomas, University of Manitoba political studies professor emeritus.

"The problems in the health field reflect long-standing issues (and) deficiencies" exacerbated by the pandemic, Thomas said Monday, adding he doubts any health minister could come away from such a situation unscathed.

Stefanson also has to consider the ambitions of her MLAs, he said.

<p>MIKAELA MACKENZIE / FREE PRESS FILES</p>Cameron Friesen has taken some flack for a perceived lack of enforcement of public-health orders in his Morden-Winkler constituency.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / FREE PRESS FILES

Cameron Friesen has taken some flack for a perceived lack of enforcement of public-health orders in his Morden-Winkler constituency.

"We don’t know what members of her cabinet have said to her about their plans going forward," he said. "Some might be seeking some type of less less work or, maybe, even more."

He pointed to the example of government house leader Kelvin Goertzen, who wanted to lighten his load after a long stint of heavy lifting as health minister in charge of reorganizing and consolidating health care.

There’s speculation Goertzen will move to the justice portfolio, a cabinet post the lawyer may be more suited to than the current minister, Cameron Friesen, whose background is in education. Friesen has taken some flack for a perceived lack of enforcement of public-health orders in his Morden-Winkler constituency — even though, as a minister, such decisions likely wouldn’t end up on his desk, Thomas said.

As health minister, Friesen accused doctors of "causing chaos" when they raised concerns in November 2020 about the province’s pandemic response — a rare misstep for the MLA elected in 2011. He has a good rapport with the premier, Thomas said, and is expected to remain in cabinet — likely in the advanced education portfolio, one source said.

The other thing the premier has to consider is positioning her party for the next election that must be held by Oct. 3, 2023, Adams said, adding cabinet ministers are much more likely to win re-election.

<p>RUTH BONNEVILLE / FREE PRESS FILES</p>Stefanson’s cabinet may welcome the return of Eileen Clarke.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / FREE PRESS FILES

Stefanson’s cabinet may welcome the return of Eileen Clarke.

More than half of the seats in the Manitoba assembly are from Winnipeg, with swing ridings holding the balance of power. Pallister and the PCs took over from the NDP by winning back swing seats in southern Winnipeg, Adams said.

"Heather Stefanson’s got to struggle to hold that," he said. At the same time, she can’t take the PC base in rural and small-town Manitoba for granted.

"She’s just come out of a leadership battle in which the party, in many ways, was split on rural-urban lines," he said.

Glover had a strong showing outside urban areas — support that could be lost if a new provincial party forms.

"It’s a balancing act," Adams said.

Stefanson’s cabinet may welcome the return of former Indigenous and northern relations minister Eileen Clarke, who quit last summer over Pallister’s statements defending colonial settlers, a source said. A return to cabinet for the MLA for Agassiz, whose LinkedIn page says she "semi-retired" from the PC party, would make the point that the new premier "is a more empathetic and kinder leader than Pallister," said Thomas.

"If the cabinet shifts from a rural to an urban majority, having a credible, moderate voice like Clarke in the lineup would help to bridge the gap between the conservative and progressive wings of the party," he said.

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.