While it was overshadowed by the provincial budget tabled the following day, the Premier’s decision to shuffle his cabinet on April 29th ought to have raised more eyebrows. After all, this was Greg Selinger’s first major ministerial re-org since ekeing out a pyrrhic victory as party leader.
Unsurprisingly, most attention was paid to who among the “gang of five” would be welcomed back into the fold and what he would do with his leadership opponents. For the record, Selinger readmitted Steve Ashton, offered to do the same for Theresa Oswald but was rebuffed and otherwise ignored Jennifer Howard, Erin Selby, Stan Struthers and Andrew Swan. Perhaps the gang should have sworn that Pledge of Solidarity, after all. Though it is doubtful any of them would have wanted to rejoin the fold. Something about rearranging metaphorical deck chairs on the proverbial ship comes to mind.
However, it was Selinger’s decision to promote Kerri Irvin-Ross, embattled Minister of Family Services, to Deputy Premier that truly surprised. Why assign her additional duties when she can barely handle her existing ones? Of all the portfolios requiring razor-sharp attention and complete focus, surely it is the one that includes the province’s Child and Family Services agency.
Irvin-Ross’ iron-clad loyalty to the Premier during last fall’s internecine brouhaha likely factored into his decision to reward her with such a prestigious post. Deputy Premiers, like Deputy Prime Ministers, are not necessary positions in our Westminster system. They are instead doled out for political or partisan purposes; rarely do they come with any sort of operational responsibility. It remains unclear whether or not it does with Irvin-Ross’ appointment.
Still, even if the post is entirely ceremonial, which would allow Irvin-Ross to to dedicate 100 percent of her time to underperforming as Family Services Minister, it is bizarre the Premier would choose to fete such a failure.
Yes, Kerri Irvin-Ross inherited a toxic portfolio. The problems plaguing her ministry and its related agencies weren’t created overnight and won’t be solved tomorrow. They will, however, require a degree of skill she has yet to demonstrate.
By now everyone is familiar with the raft of tragedies that have befallen children in CFS care. The drugs. The prostitution. The sexual assaults. The murder. Heartbreaking stories at the confluence of poverty, addiction, abuse, exploitation and structural racism. There is little doubt Ms. Irvin-Ross hasn’t been touched by these stories — who hasn’t been? — but her compassion hasn’t translated into action.
Indeed, the number of children in care has skyrocketed. Despite promises to end the practice, the use of motels to house vulnerable children and teens continues apace. The foster care system is woefully inadequate and its bed registry well behind schedule. One of the key recommendations from the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry to require all those involved in social work to register with the province has been ignored. And the Minister responsible for this mess has yet to set foot in even one of these hotels housing kids.
But it isn’t just Irvin-Ross’ inability to affect positive momentum; she has also demonstrated a serious lack of knowledge about her own portfolio. Despite having been on the job for over a year, when asked in the wake of Tina Fontaine’s death about her department’s $8 million contract with private company, Complete Care, to supervise children in hotels, she remained uninformed. She had no idea the company even existed, despite it receiving the lion’s share of her department’s $13.4 million worth of contracts to just three private care providers.
Even if Ms. Irvin-Ross had been ignorant about the specifics, that she did not think to inform herself about such details before speaking publicly about the matter suggests she simply isn’t up to the job. And nothing she has done since would suggest otherwise. And yet, in Greg Selinger’s government that kind of performance nets a promotion. Hashtag head-shake.
Ministerial accountability used to be a thing. A big deal. An integral element of Cabinet government. It meant minsters were ultimately responsible for the performance of their respective departments. And indeed, there was a time when ministers would actually resign on principle if their department was found to have failed in some fashion. Or they were fired. Today, in Manitoba at least, those ministers are promoted.
Originally published on Spectator Tribune.