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'An opportunity': Manitoba finance minister quits for federal run

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WINNIPEG -

Manitoba's finance minister is stepping down to run for a seat in the House of Commons.

Cameron Friesen said he informed Premier Heather Stefanson on Friday morning of his plan to leave cabinet.

He said he will resign his legislature seat in the near future and seek the federal Conservative nomination in the riding of Portage-Lisgar. Member of Parliament Candice Bergen, who currently holds the seat, announced in the fall she would not seek re-election.

"When an MP steps down, it creates an opportunity -- one that doesn't present itself often. And it was one that my wife, Shelley, and I felt increasingly compelled to at least give consideration to," Friesen said in an interview from his Winkler-Morden constituency, southwest of Winnipeg.

Friesen's decision is the latest in a series of recent similar announcements by Progressive Conservative caucus members. Roughly one-third of the 36 caucus members elected in 2019 have either quit in the last two years or have said they are not running again in the provincial election scheduled for Oct. 3.

The governing Tories have been trailing the Opposition New Democrats in opinion polls for two years, especially in Winnipeg, where most legislature seats are.

Four other cabinet ministers -- deputy premier Cliff Cullen, Municipal Relations Minister Eileen Clarke, Government Services Minister Reg Helwer and Alan Lagimodiere, minister of Indigenous reconciliation and northern relations -- have said they will serve out their terms but not run again.

Stefanson said earlier this month she was planning a cabinet shuffle, and Friesen's decision means a new finance minister will be needed to finish the spring budget.

Friesen said his departure won't affect budget preparations.

"The work of Treasury Board starts months in advance of the budget," Friesen said.

"I feel very, very good about the plans that we have put together thus far, that are still pending the decisions of the cabinet."

But hours later, the government postponed its first pre-budget public consultation meeting, scheduled for Monday in Winnipeg. A meeting in Steinbach the following day was still set to go ahead.

Stefanson said Friday that Friesen will stay on as finance minister until the cabinet shuffle occurs -- she would not specify a date -- and wished Friesen well.

"We knew when Candice (Bergen) stepped down, that it's an opportunity for others to seek an opportunity at another level of government," she said.

Friesen has represented the Morden-Winkler seat since 2011 and has held cabinet portfolios including health and justice since the Tories won the 2016 election. The seat is one of the safest Tory seats in the province. Friesen received 80 per cent of the vote in the last election, eight times that of his nearest competitor.

A political analyst said Friesen's departure is a blow to the Stefanson government.

"I can't think that she would welcome the departure of Mr. Friesen, who was valuable in terms of the number of portfolios he's held for the government," said Paul Thomas, professor emeritus of political studies at the University of Manitoba.

The optics of so many caucus members not running again amid low poll numbers is also not encouraging for the Tories, Thomas added.

"Each circumstance where someone has decided not to offer their name for re-election is somewhat personal and particular, but the appearance is that a lot of people can't stomach the prospect of sitting on the opposition benches."

Stefanson said many of her caucus members who are leaving politics are of retirement age, and now is a time for renewal. The premier also made changes this month to her advisers, including the chief of staff and communications director.

"I'm very excited about the renewal within our party, the new energy that's coming in."

Friesen would have competition for the federal nomination in Portage-Lisgar. Branden Leslie, who managed Bergen's 2019 campaign and recently worked with the Grain Growers of Canada, has said he will run. Others, including former member of Parliament Lawrence Toet, have expressed interest.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 27, 2023.

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