By Steve Lambert, The Canadian Press
WINNIPEG — Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson promoted four backbenchers from suburban Winnipeg areas to her inner circle Monday in a cabinet shuffle eight months out from an election.
Janice Morley-Lecomte, elected in 2016, was named minister of mental health and community wellness. James Teistma, also elected in 2016, was named minister of government services and consumer protection.
The other two new ministers in the Progressive Conservative cabinet are rookies who were recently elected in byelections. Obby Khan is the new minister of sport, culture and heritage. Kevin Klein is the new minister for environment and climate change.
“Today we are gathered here to reflect on the importance of hope and renewal, which is vital in pretty much every aspect of our lives, but it’s also vital in government,” Stefanson said at the swearing-in ceremony at the legislature.
Two others not seeking re-election remain in cabinet but change portfolios. Cliff Cullen moves from economic development to finance. Eileen Clarke moves from municipal relations to Indigenous reconciliation.
Stefanson said the province is set to deliver its budget in the spring, something that is expected to take place without delay after appointing a new minister to the portfolio.
The decision to appoint newly elected officials and hold onto ones who won’t be returning come October is about balance, said Stefanson.
“It’s about having that experience around the table, but also bringing in new, so they can help with training some of the new cabinet ministers,” she said.
“Every one of these individuals that stand before you today … is very capable of doing their jobs.”
Stefanson has also recently shaken up her staff. She changed her chief of staff and replaced her communications director, among others.
The cabinet shuffle comes as the governing Tories have trailed the Opposition New Democrats in opinion polls for two years, especially in Winnipeg, where most legislature seats are.
The drop started during the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic as hospitals began to struggle to deal with rising patient counts and surgeries were postponed. In 2021, dozens of intensive care patients were flown to other provinces in a bid to free up beds.
The shuffle was prompted by recent announcements by five cabinet ministers who are resigning soon or staying on but not running again in the election scheduled for Oct. 3. The most recent was Cameron Friesen, who announced Friday that he was planning to step down as finance minister and resign his legislature seat to seek a federal Conservative nomination.
Friesen and two ministers not seeking re-election — Reg Helwer and Alan Lagimodiere — were dropped from cabinet Monday.
The new ministers kept mum when it came to questions about top priorities for their portfolios.
Morley-Lecomte said her previous career working in social services and with individuals “through different struggles and different challenges” is a strength in her new role.
Those working in the addictions and mental health fields have been calling for additional investments to support rehab spaces. Some have been urging the province to reconsider opening supervised consumption sites to address overdose deaths.
When asked her views on the contentious issue, Morley-Lecomte did not answer.
“I’m new to the role, so I really have to sit down with the deputy in the department and take a look at what’s going on.”
Klein, who is coming off a mayoral run for Winnipeg after serving on city council, said he is excited to take on the environment and climate change portfolio after he supported actions to address these issues during his term.
Despite being relatively new on the job, Klein said he has no issues speaking up if he needs to.
“I do feel thus far that the premier’s office and all members of the PC caucus are collaborative. We’ve been able to have conversations. I’ve been able to share my feelings on items and I’ve been able to talk freely.”
Wab Kinew, leader of the Opposition NDP, said Monday’s charges were meant to address internal issues within the government caucus.
“It’s another cabinet shuffle born out of political chaos on the PC side.”
One political analyst said the shuffle seems aimed at promoting Winnipeg Tories in danger of losing their seats.
“They’re in suburban Winnipeg seats that the government has to hold onto if they have any hope of winning the next election,” said Royce Koop, who teaches political studies at the University of Manitoba.
“Stefanson has kind of balanced in keeping the veterans in the big, challenging portfolios while giving opportunities to these newer members who she wants to take on a bigger, more public role.”