The resumption of the Manitoba legislature Wednesday — after a nearly three-month hiatus — should provide an opportunity for the public to become reacquainted with members of Premier Brian Pallister's front bench.

The resumption of the Manitoba legislature Wednesday — after a nearly three-month hiatus — should provide an opportunity for the public to become reacquainted with members of Premier Brian Pallister's front bench.

More than ever, Pallister has been the face of the Progressive Conservative government of late while key cabinet ministers have seen their public roles diminished.

Since the house last sat in early December, the premier has taken centre stage at pandemic-related news conferences as well as on other topics.

Since the house last sat in early December, Premier Brian Pallister has taken centre stage at pandemic-related news conferences as well as on other topics.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / FREE PRESS FILES

Since the house last sat in early December, Premier Brian Pallister has taken centre stage at pandemic-related news conferences as well as on other topics.

University of Manitoba political scientist Royce Koop says the "presidentialization" of Canadian politics has been occurring for some time, "but COVID just put it into overdrive — especially here in Manitoba."

In recent months, Pallister has appeared on camera more frequently than all his ministers combined. With the legislature in recess — and the pandemic preventing politicians from pressing the flesh — most cabinet members have laboured in obscurity.

Former health minister Cameron Friesen played a key role in briefing the public about the pandemic early on, but his presence at news conferences became rarer as case counts and deaths soared late last year.

Friesen's successor, Heather Stefanson, has largely worked in the shadows since her appointment in a Jan. 5 cabinet shuffle.

"I think he made a conscious decision at some point to put himself out there and to be that really prominent public face," Koop said of Pallister. "The result of that has been when things have gone well he’s gotten the credit and when things have gone badly he’s had to eat it himself."

Former health minister Cameron Friesen played a key role in briefing the public about the pandemic early on, but his presence at news conferences became rarer as case counts and deaths soared late last year.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / FREE PRESS FILES

Former health minister Cameron Friesen played a key role in briefing the public about the pandemic early on, but his presence at news conferences became rarer as case counts and deaths soared late last year.

With the pandemic top-of-mind, several government departments — and the ministers in charge — are not receiving the public scrutiny they usually get.

Since the last sitting day of the legislature on Dec. 3, most cabinet ministers have largely avoided direct questions from reporters, instead issuing statements crafted by aides when asked for comment on the issues of the day.

Journalists are so used to being refused interviews with ministers that some have admitted privately they've stopped requesting one-on-one time with these senior officials.

In two months as health minister, Stefanson has participated in two press conferences and appeared in one photo-op (when she toured the Brandon COVID-19 vaccination site with the premier). She has declined requests for interviews with Free Press reporters.

Instead, Stefanson has issued numerous press releases, including a four-paragraph statement Monday commenting on the release of a report on how the pandemic has affected Manitobans differently based on their race, ethnicity or indigeneity.

Heather Stefanson has largely worked in the shadows since her appointment in a Jan. 5 cabinet shuffle.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Heather Stefanson has largely worked in the shadows since her appointment in a Jan. 5 cabinet shuffle.

Of the three new cabinet ministers sworn in as part of the January cabinet shuffle, Advanced Education, Skills and Training Minister Wayne Ewasko has held one formal press conference. Audrey Gordon, minister of mental health, wellness and recovery, had an outdoor photo-op at 8 a.m. in late January on Bell Let's Talk Day, followed by a poorly attended 8:30 a.m. announcement inside the legislative building that the Women's Health Clinic would develop a program to address the issues around pregnancy and infant loss.

With Manitoba Hydro and other Crown corporations frequently in the news, Crown Services Minister Jeff Wharton has communicated to the media mainly by press release in recent months.

His appearance alongside Pallister at a press conference Monday to comment on a Manitoba Hydro report marked only the second time since Nov. 30 that he has had a media availability.

Since taking on the justice portfolio in January, Friesen has been absent as minister from the public eye in Winnipeg.

Cliff Cullen, the former justice minister, has participated in a couple of high-profile media briefings as the new minister of education. He is likely to adopt a much higher public profile in the months ahead when the government releases a long-awaited review on the public school system, along with accompanying legislation.

Crown Services Minister Jeff Wharton has communicated to the media mainly by press release in recent months.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Crown Services Minister Jeff Wharton has communicated to the media mainly by press release in recent months.

Opposition Leader Wab Kinew said that under Pallister, power has always been concentrated in a small group surrounding the premier.

There are public perils when government dodges questions and avoids accountability, he said.

"When we couldn't get answers on (COVID-19) contact tracing or on testing or on preparations in the health-care system, that was the path that led us to a huge spike in cases," Kinew said.

Last fall, the PC government took the unprecedented step of introducing 19 bills in the legislature without releasing their contents. The move followed procedural tactics the previous spring by the NDP that disrupted the government's legislative agenda, including delaying the introduction of the provincial budget.

The government responds

Blake Robert, the government's director of media relations and issues management, said COVID-19 has presented challenges with how the province communicates with the media and public.

However, it has also "reinforced what Manitobans need to know and hear from their government and how they access that information," he said in a late-day statement Tuesday to the Free Press.

"Given the evolution in how Manitobans obtain news and information, access to elected officials should not be defined based only on traditional media availabilities (hosted in the Manitoba legislature) and one-on-one interviews," he wrote.

Blake Robert, the government's director of media relations and issues management, said COVID-19 has presented challenges with how the province communicates with the media and public.

However, it has also "reinforced what Manitobans need to know and hear from their government and how they access that information," he said in a late-day statement Tuesday to the Free Press.

"Given the evolution in how Manitobans obtain news and information, access to elected officials should not be defined based only on traditional media availabilities (hosted in the Manitoba legislature) and one-on-one interviews," he wrote.

"Premier Pallister and our cabinet have been accessible and available to all Manitobans throughout this pandemic in a variety of ways, including traditional press conferences, virtual events, stakeholder meetings and roundtable discussions, telephone town halls, online engagement surveys, office correspondence and through digital and social media channels."

Since becoming health minister, Heather Stefanson has held three media availabilities, provided four media interviews and taken part in a telephone town hall, Robert said.

Advanced Education Minister Wayne Ewasko has held two media availabilities and "provided six interviews or written responses" to media questions, he said.

Since becoming mental health, wellness and recovery minister, Audrey Gordon has held three media availabilities, "including one where no media chose to attend," Robert said. He also said Gordon has given nine media interviews, while not citing specific media outlets.

Since joining cabinet as municipal relations minister in January, new cabinet minister Derek Johnson has held one media availability and given one interview, Robert said. It's unclear whether the MLA for Interlake-Gimli met with Winnipeg media or outlets in his constituency.

Since Nov. 30, Crown Services Minister Jeff Wharton had held two media availabilities and "provided seven interviews or written responses" in response to media requests for comment, Robert said.

Opposition parties were frustrated by the cancellation of weeks of legislative debate last spring due to COVID-19. Since fall, however, MLAs have adopted a normal sitting schedule as most members have been able to participate virtually.

Koop said legislative sittings and elections are the main forums for holding governments to account.

One of his concerns during the pandemic, is that a number of government departments are not getting the scrutiny they normally receive.

"This is a time when you actually need to be paying more attention to what government's doing — when everyone is focused on a particular thing," Koop said. "I think there's a good argument for real scrutiny in this period."

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca

Larry Kusch

Larry Kusch
Legislature reporter

Larry Kusch didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life until he attended a high school newspaper editor’s workshop in Regina in the summer of 1969 and listened to a university student speak glowingly about the journalism program at Carleton University in Ottawa.

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