Opinion

Cabinet shuffles are intriguing, but frustrating, stories to cover.

Cabinet shuffles are intriguing, but frustrating, stories to cover.

Intriguing because shuffles provide a brief and often salacious glimpse into the inter-personal dynamics in a governing party. Frustrating because the truth behind the shuffle is almost never discussed by the first minister who is in charge of moving cabinet ministers around.

That was certainly the case on Tuesday, when Premier Brian Pallister undertook his third major cabinet shuffle, this one right smack in the midst of a public health crisis.

Although Pallister spoke about the importance of "renewing" his cabinet, this was less of a renewal and more of a total reconstruction of the front bench that was prompted almost entirely by the need to get Cameron Friesen out of health. (He moves to justice.)

The total reconstruction of the front bench was prompted almost entirely by the need to get Cameron Friesen out of health.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / FREE PRESS FILES

The total reconstruction of the front bench was prompted almost entirely by the need to get Cameron Friesen out of health.

Friesen lashed out at doctors who had the temerity to challenge his government's muddled pandemic response. He was criticized from coast to coast for claiming the carnage in long-term care homes was "unavoidable." He was also in charge this summer when the province closed testing sites, dismantled its pandemic command structure and dithered on preparations for an inevitable second wave of COVID-19.

It may be fair to paint Friesen as the fall guy for decisions that were ultimately made by Pallister, a premier who casts a suffocating shadow over all those who serve in cabinet. Even so, his performance was woeful.

If that was Pallister's only pressing need, this shuffle could have been much smaller. But he also had to deal with Kelvin Goertzen, who wanted a new gig.

Some observers will argue his move from education to legislative affairs and deputy premier is a demotion. Those people do not know Goertzen very well.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>The move to the new and somewhat poorly defined legislative affairs allows Kelvin Goertzen to focus on the mundane task of making the legislative trains run on time — where he will be happy.</p></p>

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The move to the new and somewhat poorly defined legislative affairs allows Kelvin Goertzen to focus on the mundane task of making the legislative trains run on time — where he will be happy.

In 2016, Goertzen made no bones about the fact he really wanted to be appointed Speaker of the legislature. Instead, Pallister put him first into health and then education, both crucible portfolios that involve huge budgets and the crippling scrutiny that goes with them.

The move to the new and somewhat poorly defined legislative affairs allows him to focus on the mundane task of making the legislative trains run on time — where he will be happy.

Once Friesen and Goertzen were both on the move, the shuffle increased in size and scope, allowing Pallister to tackle other important goals.

Elevating Southdale MLA Audrey Gordon (now minister of mental health, wellness and recovery) serves two purposes.

Many in the Tory universe believed the charismatic Audrey Gordon was ready for promotion.

Many in the Tory universe believed the charismatic Gordon was ready for promotion, with the added knowledge that a cabinet post would profoundly boost her bid to retain Southdale, a Winnipeg seat that will most definitely be in play in the next election.

Pallister's decision to promote a woman, and a woman of colour, is also a net plus for a cabinet that is still mostly male and, prior to Gordon, entirely white. Oddly, and perhaps reflective of Pallister's real commitment to diversity and inclusion, his decision to promote two white backbenchers (Interlake-Gimli MLA Derek Johnson and Lac du Bonnet MLA Wayne Ewasko) maintains the same percentage of women in cabinet.

The rest of the shuffle was really just plugging holes with the nearest warm bodies. Economic Development Minister Ralph Eichler lost the training portion of his portfolio, which is now packaged up in a new portfolio (education, skills and immigration) for Ewasko.

Elevating Southdale MLA Audrey Gordon (now minister of mental health, wellness and recovery) serves two purposes.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Elevating Southdale MLA Audrey Gordon (now minister of mental health, wellness and recovery) serves two purposes.

Cliff Cullen leaves a mostly unremarkable stint as justice minister to take on education. Cullen becomes the third education minister in three years to be tasked with delivering a long-overdue reform of the public school system.

Heather Stefanson is freed from families to take on health, while Rochelle Squires takes on families — aptly nicknamed the "Ministry of Misery" by those who have held the position — and relinquishes municipal affairs to the aforementioned Johnson. Eight other ministers were left untouched.

What did Pallister accomplish with this shuffle? He removed an unpopular minister from health, and indulged another minister who is capable but lacks ambition. He provided much-needed boosts to a couple of backbenchers who will need a higher profile to retain their seats in the next election.

But in accomplishing all that, Pallister also gave ground on a couple of important issues.

The new cabinet is larger — 18, up from 15 — and as such represents a significant shift from the lean and mean cabinets he trumpeted in the past.

Cliff Cullen becomes the third education minister in three years to be tasked with delivering a long-overdue reform of the public school system.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / FREE PRESS FILES

Cliff Cullen becomes the third education minister in three years to be tasked with delivering a long-overdue reform of the public school system.

It was just a few years ago that Pallister congratulated himself for saving taxpayers more than $5 million annually by reducing cabinet to just 12 members. At 18 strong, Pallister has an inner circle comparable in size to the NDP cabinets of the past.

In theory, a bigger cabinet could expand the capacity of a government that has had trouble getting some of the simplest tasks completed.

Pallister's leaner cabinet left him with too few ministers, and too little in the way of administrative support, to deliver on its priorities.

When it is finally written, the history of the Pallister government will be pockmarked with poorly executed and incompleted priorities such as the overdue overhaul of public education or the half-finished restructuring of the hospital system. Those are the hallmarks of a less costly, but less effective government.

So, for all those ministers with new jobs, the same jobs or those who just joined cabinet, congratulations.

But remember, ministers in the Pallister government are mostly seen, rarely heard and in the case of unfortunates like Friesen, always eligible to be thrown under the bus.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

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.

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