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Premier 'resets' his team as NDP's popularity sags

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Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger and his new cabinet.

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Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger and his new cabinet.

Premier Greg Selinger called it a "reset," but that hardly describes what he did Friday in a major shakeup to his cabinet.

It's more like a jolt to give the NDP a fighting chance in the next election two years away.

Trying to stop his government's steady drop in popular support, the NDP leader called on his best performers to take the lead in defending the increase to the provincial sales tax when the legislature resumes sitting Nov. 12, then selling it to skeptical Manitobans.

 

Former family services minister Jennifer Howard is the new minister of finance, replacing Stan Struthers, and outgoing health minister Theresa Oswald is the new of minister of jobs and the economy, the renamed department of entrepreneurship, training and trade.

Selinger said the "refocusing" of his cabinet comes at the mid-term of his mandate and is normal for every government.

Privately, his handlers said the cabinet shuffle -- it also saw three longtime ministers dropped in favour of three new faces -- was needed to give the NDP a boost to compete against the Progressive Conservatives.

"It was important for us to reset the whole team," Selinger said. "We try and bring a good team of people together. People that have stepped aside have recognized the need for new blood to come in."

The premier said the shuffle puts a greater emphasis on the economy and jobs in the next two years.

"Everybody recognizes the need to have a strong team," he said, adding he will run for re-election. "My future is to work with these people and to ensure we have good government for the future of Manitoba."

 

Stop the bleeding

 

That's the job of Howard and Oswald. The pair is largely seen as the saviours of the NDP as the government tries to dig itself out of the hole it has created with its poor handling of the PST increase.

Howard said her priority is to tell Manitobans where the government is spending its money, including revenue from the PST increase.

"Our job -- all of us -- is to continue to show Manitobans that we're spending their money on the things that matter to them. We're not going to make those choices by cutting deeply into things that matter to Manitobans, but we are going to make sure that we're spending money effectively."

Oswald, until Friday the country's longest-serving health minister at seven years, said her new responsibilities will be job-creation and innovation.

"It's going to be a very big learning curve for me, but you know what? I'm a good student," she said.

 

Arrivals

 

James Allum (Fort Garry-Riverview) leaps from the backbench into the large education portfolio, with one of the biggest operating budgets in government at $2.4 billion. He also assumes responsibility for colleges and universities, formerly a separate department. Allum is an academic with a PhD who once taught part-time at the University of Winnipeg. He comes from a family of teachers -- a brother and sister each taught school, and his daughter is a Grade 1 French-immersion teacher. "I've inherited family genes that are related to education and teaching. It's a good fit," he said Friday.

Erna Braun (Rossmere), first elected in 2007, enters cabinet as minister of labour and immigration. Before she entered politics, she was a longtime home-economics teacher and was heavily involved in negotiating contracts for teachers. The provincial Tories have targeted her seat as one of several in the city they hope to win back in the next election.

The Tories have also targeted Sharon Blady (Kirkfield Park). Blady inherits the post of healthy living minister from Jim Rondeau.

"It's a step up," she said. "It will give me a chance to be a little hands-on with things to see if there are any new directions or new places that I can take it."

 

Departures

 

If Selinger was going to give his government a fresh face without increasing the size of cabinet -- it remains at 19 members -- someone had to go. Gone are Nancy Allan (St. Vital), Jim Rondeau (Assiniboia) and Christine Melnick (Riel).

Allan, a 10-year cabinet minister and the education minister for the last four years, shepherded the controversial anti-bullying bill through the legislature. She will continue to be the NDP's point person on the cyber-bullying issue and will act as legislative assistant to Allum, her successor in the education portfolio. Reached in Ottawa, where she was attending a wedding, Allan said she offered to leave cabinet after "a really good conversation" with the premier. "At the end of the day, if you want to make changes in cabinet, somebody has to come out," she said. Although sources initially said Allan did not intend to run in the next election, the St. Vital MLA said Friday she has not ruled out seeking re-election.

Rondeau and Melnick were unavailable.

 

Moving on up

 

Erin Selby sees the biggest jump in responsibilty as she becomes the new health minister, moving up from advanced education.

The former television host will oversee the massive health portfolio, which comes with a whopping $5.2-billion budget. Under Oswald, the health department has seen its spending increase less rapidly than in the past.

Selby, the mother of triplets, said she welcomes her new role.

"I suspect that I'm going to spend the weekend with a very large stack of books and get caught up," she said.

Kevin Chief (Point Douglas) retains his children and youth portfolio and assumes responsibility for the City of Winnipeg. (All other municipalities are the responsibility of former finance minister Stan Struthers.) Chief, first elected in 2011, will now take on the often challenging task of negotiating with Mayor Sam Katz on such issues as civic funding and the future of rapid transit. Given the prickly relationship between Broadway and Main Street, this will be a big test for the inner-city MLA, who only joined cabinet in January.

Kerri Irvin-Ross will draw on her social-work background as she assumes the demanding family services file. The report of the public inquiry into the death of Phoenix Sinclair comes out late this year or early next year. She'll be in charge of implementing the inquiry's recommendations, which the NDP has vowed to do. Previously, she was minister responsible for housing and community development.

 

Moving on down

 

Stan Struthers put on a brave face Friday as he answered questions about his demotion from the finance portfolio. Rightly or wrongly, Struthers took the blame for the government's inability to sell the merits of its PST hike. Struthers takes over responsibility for Manitoba Hydro from Dave Chomiak and is minister of municipal government (except for the City of Winnipeg). He will also be the government's point man in dealing with Ottawa and the municipalities in rolling out a new Building Canada infrastructure program. In his new role, Struthers will be in a position to ensure the PST hike is used on infrastructure as the government has promised. "I'm in a very good position to continue that work," he said.

Former local government minister Ron Lemieux also saw his star fall. Lemieux dropped the ball on the municipal-amalgamation bill and angered many people living outside the Perimeter Highway. He's the new minister of culture, sport and consumer protection and is responsible for the acts that govern booze and gambling.

 

What the Opposition said

 

Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Pallister said no amount of musical-chairs playing "with an out-of-tune cabinet" will change the fact the NDP's "high-spend, high-tax agenda" has fallen out of favour with Manitobans.

Pallister, speaking Friday from Brandon, where his party is preparing for its annual general meeting this weekend, said the new ministers -- and those receiving big promotions -- tend to be from "ridings that are going to be in trouble" in the next election.

"That is a standard practice; I can understand that. But it doesn't make it right," he said, adding promotions should be based on merit, not political opportunism.

bruce.owen@freepress.mb.ca larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 19, 2013 A6

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Updated on Saturday, October 19, 2013 at 6:12 PM CDT: Updates photo.

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