Nova Scotia·Analysis

Iain Rankin's first challenge as premier is building a representative cabinet

Iain Rankin ran a successful bid for the leadership of the Nova Scotia Liberal Party and has picked his top advisors. Now he faces his first major task as premier: choosing the cabinet he will likely lead into the next general election.

Making cabinet choices is like trying to solve a Rubik's Cube, says Dal political scientist

Iain Rankin addresses supporters after winning the leadership of the Nova Scotia Liberal Party at a virtual convention in Halifax earlier this month. (The Canadian Press)

Iain Rankin will officially take over the premier's job at a ceremony in Halifax Tuesday morning, less than five months after he launched his bid to lead the Nova Scotia Liberal Party.

But the journey he started in October at the Prospect Road Community Centre is going to be a lot tougher than the one that ended with his 52 per cent leadership win on Feb. 6.

He's taking over a government running (at last count) a $780-million deficit, the province's deepest fiscal hole since 1999 when the year ended with a $797-million deficit. Nova Scotia also remains in the grips of a global pandemic, and is still in the early stages of rolling out the largest vaccination program in the province's history.

The first job of the 37-year-old former lands and forestry minister is to put together the team he hopes will be able to keep Nova Scotians safe from COVID-19, and start to rebuild the province's ailing economy before seeking a mandate from Nova Scotians.

And he's got to choose a cabinet knowing six people who were in Stephen McNeil's cabinet will not run in the next election.

Some of those who are leaving politics once the election is called are senior cabinet ministers, including Finance Minister Karen Casey, Health Minister Leo Glavine and Justice Minister Mark Furey.

Karen Casey is among a number of prominent Liberal cabinet ministers who say they will not run in the next Nova Scotia election. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Building a cabinet is "extremely difficult" in normal times, according to Dalhousie political science professor Katherine Fierlbeck. 

When choosing cabinet members, premiers take into account gender, geography, personal background or experience, and political considerations such as whether a caucus colleague supported their leadership bid.

"You have to think of it metaphorically like a Rubik's Cube," said Fierlbeck. "Once you get everything right from one angle it completely messes up any attempt to provide a representative face from the different angles.

"So you're always switching things around to try to please as many possible interest groups as possible, on any number of different issues."

Women in cabinet

Although, in recent years, political leaders have made an effort to choose more women to sit at the cabinet table, there are only seven women on the Liberal side of the House and two have announced they are leaving politics.

Fierlbeck isn't sure just how big a factor gender will play for Rankin, as he picks his first cabinet.

"There will always be a constituency of people who think that gender is absolutely crucial and fundamental under any circumstances," she said. "Whether the broader population thinks this or not is a question mark.

"Are they going to be thinking about identity politics, or are they going to be thinking about the economy? It's hard to tell."

Given that women now make up half of the 16 councillors on Halifax regional council, she acknowledge "it will look quite bad" if Rankin does not name enough women to his cabinet.

Labi Kousoulis was a close runner-up in the Nova Scotia Liberal leadership contest. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

Rankin will also want to reward caucus colleagues who helped him win the party's top job. Backbenchers Brendan Maguire, Ben Jessome and Keith Irving all campaigned hard on Rankin's behalf and will be looking for a tangible show of thanks. If not a cabinet position, perhaps something that pays as much, such as the Speaker's job or the less prestigious House leader.

Rankin will also have to find room for his former leadership rivals, Randy Delorey and Labi Kousoulis. He pledged, immediately following his leadership win, to put them in cabinet.

Fierlbeck said there's a longtime political observation that comes into play when dealing with one-time rivals.

"You want to keep your friends close and your enemies closer, just so that you know what they're up to and if there are any waves of disaffection you want to have a handle on that. And you want to be able to address that as easily as possible," she said.

Kousoulis, in particular, may be rewarded with a high-ranking role in Rankin's cabinet, having placed a close second to him in the race, garnering more than 2,600 votes. Rankin will need that kind of support from rank-and-file Liberals heading into an election that is likely to come this year or early next. 

So Rankin will not only be looking for people he believes are capable and loyal, he'll be looking to Nova Scotians to approve of his choices.

That's because they may soon be passing judgment on his government and deciding if Rankin, who received a mandate from Liberal delegates, can win a similar vote of confidence from Nova Scotians at large.