Under normal circumstances, the next couple of months of Kelvin Goertzen’s political career would be little more than a mere formality.
But these are anything but normal circumstances, so the policy-making plate of Manitoba’s newly appointed temporary premier looks to be rather abundantly full.
In the wake of former premier Brian Pallister’s resignation and departure from office effective 8 a.m. Wednesday, Mr. Goertzen was sworn in as the province’s 23rd premier — a position he will hold for no more than two months, owing to the Progressive Conservative Party’s intention to introduce a newly elected leader on Oct. 30.
In the interim, the job of leading the current provincial government will fall to Mr. Goertzen, whose 18 years serving as the MLA for Steinbach have included stints as minister of health, minister of education and minister of legislative and public affairs. He has also held the positions of government house leader and deputy premier.
As a so-called "placeholder premier," one might think Mr. Goertzen would have little to do for the next eight weeks beyond making sure the PC Party’s office lights stay on and the minimum required legislative processes are attended to until the new leader is elected. In reality, the interim premier faces a daunting must-do list that will require his fully committed attention during a short spell in office that will surely include many long days.
Mr. Goertzen assumes the premier’s chair just as Manitoba’s students return to school, with the PC government having promised a "near-normal" academic year for kids whose past 18 months of education have been marked by upheaval and stress. With the delta-variant-fuelled fourth wave of COVID-19 looming and youngsters under 12 still not eligible for vaccination against the virus, these promise to be a tense few weeks for students’ families as the first incubation periods of the school year tick past.
He is also taking the leadership reins at a time when new public-health orders are about to take effect, including the necessary imposition (in some cases, re-imposition) of mask-wearing mandates and proof-of-vaccination requirements that will limit access to public places for those who have opted not to be vaccinated.
The placeholder’s first steps as premier will be a full sprint in pursuit of the most urgent of priorities.
Mr. Goertzen will be charged with defending the public-health orders and building on Mr. Pallister’s forceful encouragement of vaccination as the province’s best chance of truly moving into a post-pandemic return to normalcy. He will be required to do so even as pockets of outrage grow in opposition to the public-health orders, particularly in the more vaccine-averse region of the province that includes the constituency he represents.
As premier, Mr. Goertzen will be obligated to look beyond placating his at-home voter base, focusing instead on the well-being of the entire province and delivering the strongest message possible in support of public-health priorities.
These are not trifling matters. The placeholder’s first steps as premier will be a full sprint in pursuit of the most urgent of priorities.
In Mr. Goertzen’s favour are his many years of political experience, his demonstrated mastery of legislative traditions and procedures, and the absolute certainty that he will be more inclined toward seeking collaboration and accepting wise counsel than the leader he has replaced.
Brief though it will be, Mr. Goertzen’s time as premier could prove crucial for Manitobans as they continue to battle fiercely on multiple fronts. How he confronts the crises he has inherited will play a large part in determining the success or failure of the PCs’ next elected leader.