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Will Selinger break from Doer tradition?

What we learn about a premier from his cabinet appointments

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Cool Hand Greg?

Following his highly efficient majority victory in last week's provincial election, Premier Greg Selinger is facing some important decisions on who will sit in a cabinet that will serve him and his government for at least the next two years. Will he move quickly to name a new cabinet, or will he show the same cool, calculating delayed gratification of his predecessor, Gary Doer, who showed no stress while seemingly taking forever to make these kinds of decisions?

Before we can get to the who, there is the issue of when. And in this case, when not only refers to a cabinet shuffle, but also to the closely associated issue of when to recall the legislature for a throne speech. Selinger must wait for two judicial recounts to take place in Kirkfield Park and St. Norbert. When those results are confirmed later this month, the premier will likely make it known when the legislature will resume sitting and for how long.

The normal fall legislative calendar would normally see the legislature recalled sometime in mid- to late-November, and sit until just before Christmas. It's typically a housekeeping session, with little in the way of new legislation introduced. The big order of business is the throne speech, which requires nine sitting days to debate and pass.

Does Selinger have to reveal a new cabinet prior to that fall session? If precedent counts for anything, he theoretically does not have to pull the trigger on a full-blown shuffle. In the May 2007 provincial election, then-premier Gary Doer lost competitiveness minister Scott Smith in Brandon West. Doer handed off Smith's duties to other ministers and then did not fully replace him until the following February.

Of course, the gaps Selinger faces are considerably more urgent than Doer faced in 2007. Finance Minister Rosann Wowchuk and Conservation Minister Bill Blaikie, both strong veteran voices in cabinet, have retired. Their responsibilities could be handed off to other ministers on an interim basis.

Finance in particular will be tough to fill. As a former finance minister, Selinger does provide some cover for the portfolio. But it will be difficult for him to do the job of first minister and finance when government is going into stressful pre-budget deliberations.

NDP sources suggest Health Minister Theresa Oswald, Labour and Immigration Minister Jennifer Howard, Agriculture Minister Stan Struthers and Family Services Minister Gord Mackintosh will be considered for the finance portfolio.

Although all four could likely fill the role, NDP faithful are more excited about the possibilities that Selinger would elevate Howard, a party favourite who has seen her influence grow within cabinet, or Oswald, who has survived five full years of service in the health portfolio. One way or the other, Oswald is almost certainly on the move; only a premier who really doesn't like you would keep you in the health pressure-cooker longer than five years. If a half-decade in government's toughest job isn't enough, her resounding electoral victory over star Tory candidate and former city councillor Gord Steeves has earned her a change of scenery.

If both vacancies are filled by veterans, that should create an opening for at least two newcomers. Erna Braun, who won re-election in Rossmere, is apparently on the premier's radar screen along with rookie Point Douglas MLA Kevin Chief, a charismatic and dynamic new face who many believe will be a future leadership option. Also to be considered is the new Riverview-Fort Garry MLA James Allum, a longtime party militant and well-educated policy wonk who sat on the inner circle of Selinger's 2009 leadership team.

Of course, those are all of the easy decisions. Selinger might find this shuffle is an opportunity to deal with under-performing ministers, or those who manufacture way too many awkward moments to be of further use.

Top of that list is occupied by Infrastructure Minister Steve Ashton, the author of several intriguing internal NDP dramas, all stemming from lingering bad blood from the 2009 leadership race he lost to Selinger. The Thompson MLA is the NDP's northern czar, and an incredibly effective organizer in Winnipeg as well. But he's also a loose cannon who was alleged to have been the instigating force behind a shadowy campaign to knock off incumbent NDP cabinet ministers at nomination meetings prior to this year's general election.

Ashton's importance to the NDP ground game is beyond reproach, and for that reason alone it is unlikely Selinger will leave him out of future cabinets. If there is anything Selinger should fear more than Ashton pursuing his own agenda from within cabinet, it is the mayhem Ashton would get up to outside of cabinet.

The timing of a new cabinet, and recalling the legislature, will be yet another test for Selinger. Doer had a very strong sense of delayed gratification, pushing decisions about cabinet appointments past the date preferred by the media and his own caucus. The next couple of weeks will show us whether Selinger has that same cool disposition.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 12, 2011 A4

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