After pushing back on their government’s public health orders and COVID-19 vaccine requirements, two Manitoba Tory MLAs have been rewarded with promotions and raises.
On Tuesday, the Progressive Conservative caucus announced Janice Morley-Lecomte (Seine River) is now the government caucus whip, which comes with a $7,887 pay bump on top of the basic annual MLA salary of $97,753.
On the same day, an order in council said Josh Guenter (Borderland) is now the legislative assistant to the minister of health, a role that comes with a $4,735 salary increase.
In a news release Tuesday, PC caucus chairman Greg Nesbitt said Morley-Lecomte’s appointment was one of the changes being made "to help strengthen our government as we look to bolster health care and advance Manitoba’s economic growth."
Health Minister Audrey Gordon did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Guenter’s appointment as her assistant.
The promotions send the wrong message to Manitobans, critics say.
"It’s a slap in the face for all the people who’ve been trying to do the right thing for all this time, and who’ve been desperately trying to keep their families safe and do all the right things," Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said Wednesday.
He called the moves a reward for supporting Premier Heather Stefanson’s leadership bid.
“We see a premier that is willing to position and lift up a member of her caucus who has actively worked against public health measures.” – NDP house leader Nahanni Fontaine
"We see a premier that is willing to position and lift up a member of her caucus who has actively worked against public health measures," NDP house leader Nahanni Fontaine said of Morley-Lecomte’s appointment as whip.
The member for Seine River was one of two MLAs who refused to publicly divulge their vaccination status when the Free Press surveyed the legislative assembly last year. The other was Springfield MLA Ron Schuler, who was removed from cabinet in December for refusing to promote public health messaging and encourage Manitobans to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
Morley-Lecomte didn’t reveal her vaccination status until she was turned away from a restaurant in November and the incident was posted on social media.
"It feels like anything goes within the PC caucus," said Fontaine, referring to Guenter who complained on social media in August that vaccine mandates were a "sledgehammer" creating two classes of people in his southeastern constituency.
"Even in a public health emergency crisis, you can go against what your government policies are," the NDP MLA said of the PC caucus members.
An expert on Manitoba politics said such appointments serve different purposes, and Morley-Lecomte’s move to whip may signal forgiveness.
"Party loyalty means that a caucus can have sympathy for and be forgiving toward an MLA who makes a mistake or is offside on a single issue," said Paul Thomas, University of Manitoba political studies professor emeritus.
The role is also a resumé-builder to help Morley-Lecomte’s re-election prospects after she was passed over for cabinet, Thomas said.
Despite the name, the role of party whip is less about meting out discipline and more about making sure members show up and are on the same page when it comes time to vote in the legislature. The whip works with the house leader and makes sure everyone is onside with the team’s norms of behaviour and codes of conduct, he said.
“Party loyalty means that a caucus can have sympathy for and be forgiving toward an MLA who makes a mistake or is offside on a single issue.” – Paul Thomas, U of M political studies professor emeritus
There’s no formal job description for legislative assistants to ministers. They help ministers with their duties in the legislature and the departments they’re meant to lead, Thomas said.
Individual ministers have discretion on how they will use assistants, in terms of what duties they will be given.
Assistants have been referred to as "future ministers in training," said Thomas. However, some ministers see them as potential rivals for scarce cabinet positions and thus refuse to give them meaningful roles with any degree of public profile, he added.
"We will see what use minister Gordon makes of Mr. Guenter," said Thomas. "It is not like there is too little to be done, even with parts of the sweeping health portfolio hived off to two other ministers."
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.