What a premier wants: How the pandemic cabinet shuffle clears a path for Pallister’s succession

Over the past 10 months, Cameron Friesen didn’t have a lot to smile about.

As Manitoba’s health minister during the initial phases of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Morden-Winkler MLA appeared to struggle at times under the weight of his tremendous responsibilities.

As pandemic fatalities in personal care homes began to mount, he characterized the death of vulnerable seniors as unavoidable.

He lashed out at doctors who demanded the province prepare for the fall crush of COVID cases. He accused those doctors — every one of them an oathkeeper to do no harm — of trying to cause “maximum chaos.”

He implored Manitobans to “understand that the people in charge have got this” just as COVID case counts and deaths began to skyrocket.

The people in charge did not have this. Friesen was one of the main people in charge.

So as 2020 sputtered to a miserable end, no one with any passing familiarity with provincial politics expected the 10-year MLA to stay in his role as health minister. That appeared to include Friesen himself.

On Tuesday, when he was relieved of his health duties and sworn in as Manitoba’s new justice minister, Friesen was beaming like a kid who just received a long-sought Christmas present.

Serving as justice minister and attorney general is not like playing an exhibition game against the Ottawa Senators. There’s plenty of pressure that comes with the gig.

It just happens to be a tiny fraction of the burden that comes with the responsibility of managing Manitoba’s pandemic response, which went from the most successful in Canada to the worst in the space of four months.

Nonetheless, Premier Brian Pallister was asked if the move was something Friesen wanted.

“It doesn’t really matter, frankly,” Pallister said. “It’s what the premier wants.”

The size of Friesen’s smile, which shone as bright as Betelgeuse on a moonless night, suggested the minister is not in mourning.

A leadership bid founders on the shoals

Prior to the pandemic, Friesen was believed to be one of the leading candidates among the existing Progressive Conservative caucus to succeed Pallister as premier.

That ship has not just sailed. It’s left the Port of Churchill, exited Hudson Bay and has steamed most of the way down the Atlantic to one of those balmy islands where Ontario finance ministers spend their Christmas holidays.

The chances of Cameron Friesen recovering from his performance as health minister to the extent he could compete for premier are so slim, they can no longer be measured in three dimensions.

Luckily for Friesen, Pallister served up a side of schadenfreude on cabinet-shuffle day. 

Friesen’s primary replacement as health minister is Heather Stefanson, herself another leading candidate to replace Pallister when the premier decides he no longer wishes to lead.

Heather Stefanson is now minister of health and seniors’ care. (Global)

The health portfolio albatross now hangs around the neck of Stefanson, the new minister of health and seniors’ care.

Dr. Jazz Atwal, the acting deputy public health officer, confirmed Tuesday he and chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin report primarily to Stefanson, not Audrey Gordon, the new minister of mental health, wellness and recovery.

It’s possible if not likely Stefanson will not face a COVID wave as severe as Friesen tried to manage in November and December. 

Yet she comes on board just as Manitoba’s crucial COVID-19 vaccination program is getting off to a sluggish start.

Vaccination numbers lag delivery of doses

As of Tuesday, Manitoba lagged behind every other province in terms of vaccination doses meted out per every dose received from manufacturers.

There is no shortage of Manitobans who want a crack at the nearly 19,000 vaccine doses in Manitoba’s possession at the moment.

Nonetheless, health-care workers are complaining about a cumbersome and time-consuming immunization-appointment process that defies their best efforts to complete.

First Nations health leaders have yet to say how they intend to distribute 5,300 Moderna doses set aside for them on Thursday.  And only today will officials reveal how they plan to send vaccination teams into personal care homes next week.

It’s taken three weeks for Manitoba to give a vaccine shot to 4,300 people. At this rate, the entire province will get their first shot around the middle of 2039.

Obviously, the province will get better at vaccinations. It just has to get a lot better, quickly, in order for Stefanson to avoid a semblance of the ire incurred by Friesen this fall.

There is no evidence Pallister appointed Stefanson because he wanted to even the playing field among erstwhile leadership competitors.

He made it clear he considers her the best person for the job.

“Minister Stefanson has performed admirably in every assignment I’ve given her,” Pallister said Tuesday.

Kelvin Goertzen is now deputy premier. (David Lipnowski/The Canadian Press)

At the same time, Pallister paved the way for a relatively smooth transition once he does leave office.

Kelvin Goertzen, who’s now deputy premier, is not believed to have leadership ambitions. He could preside over the party on a temporary basis if Pallister does leave office before this term is over.

Pallister’s early departure is not a foregone conclusion. But if the premier does intend to take a step back after the pandemic eases, Tuesday’s cabinet shuffle may have cleared the path.