Nova Scotia·Analysis

More experience but fewer options for McNeil in choosing cabinet

Stephen McNeil knows a lot more than he did in 2013 about who he can trust to handle a tricky file, but his pool for cabinet choices has shrunk considerably, which could make picking a cabinet trickier in 2017.

Open role of House leader key to a successful majority rule

Premier Stephen McNeil smiles at the end of his first cabinet meeting in November 2013 after winning the Nova Scotia provincial election in Halifax. (The Canadian Press)

When Stephen McNeil picked his first cabinet almost four years ago, Nova Scotia's Liberal premier had 33 MLAs to select from.

His chosen 15 included every member who reoffered after slogging it out through most, if not all, of the four years the Liberals spent in opposition under the NDP government of Darrell Dexter.

Given there were only seven of them, that left McNeil plenty of room to fill with newly elected MLAs. He brought in eight rookies, including Tony Ince — the man who unseated Dexter — and Joanne Bernard, the province's first openly gay cabinet minister.

He added a 16th member, Lloyd Hines, during a 2015 cabinet shuffle.

Margaret Miller replaced Andrew Younger as Environment Minister in January 2016 after a complicated and messy dispute between the MLA for Dartmouth East and the premier.

Bernard and veteran MLA Michel Samson, who most recently held the energy portfolio, were turfed in last week's provincial election.

Something old, something new?

If McNeil wants a similar-sized cabinet and values consistency over fresh faces, there may only be a few spots up for grabs this time.

McNeil lost two cabinet ministers, Joanne Bernard and Michel Samson, in the most recent provincial election. A third, Diana Whalen, opted not to reoffer this time around. (Canadian Press)

That will mean disappointment for 10 Liberals who spent the last mandate on the backbenches and may have been hoping for a cabinet post. That includes former PC MLA Chuck Porter who crossed the floor to join McNeil's team last February.

Porter and other MLAs from the Annapolis Valley have geography working against them. Including the premier, there are three cabinet ministers already from the valley.

Karen Casey, who crossed over to the Liberals five years earlier, was rewarded with the education minister's job in 2013, a post she held when she was a PC cabinet minister. 

If McNeil wants a completely new face, he has two political rookies to choose from: Rafah DiCostanzo, elected in Clayton Park West, and Hugh MacKay in Chester-St Margaret's.

During his inaugural mandate, McNeil was loyal to his first cabinet choices. Except for Younger — who was shuffled three times — most ministers kept their portfolios throughout their time in office. Randy Delorey received the biggest promotion when he moved from Environment to Finance.

Making decisions 

McNeil picked his first cabinet with the help of a transition team that, after running a routine criminal-background check on prospective ministers, made its recommendations based on individual qualifications. The premier had the final say.

Premier Stephen McNeil announced a cabinet shuffle in July 2015. (Blair Rhodes/CBC)

Former premier Darrell Dexter took a different approach. In an email, Dexter told CBC news he interviewed all 31 New Democrats elected in 2009 before choosing his cabinet.

"I interviewed all of the MLAs — asked them about their strengths and weaknesses. If they were to be in cabinet, what portfolio they would want and why? Would there be any portfolio they would not want and why? Then I looked at specific qualifications, regional representation, diversity, gender and experience," he wrote.

"We had decided on a small cabinet to begin with and this made choices difficult."

Things to consider

It's likely McNeil also considered regional representation, diversity and gender in his cabinet choices.

Having lost Bernard, his minister of community services, and Michel Samson, who also served as minister of Acadian affairs, there are likely openings for at least one more woman, as well as a spot open for a francophone.

Michel Samson, a longtime MLA who served as minister of energy and Acadian affairs, lost his seat in the most recent election. (CBC)

DiCostanzo is a translator who speaks five languages, one of them French. That could move her ahead of some of her more experienced caucus colleagues.

Samson's loss also leaves a big hole when it comes to managing House business. As House leader, it was Samson's job to act as a liaison between the governing party and the opposition forces. With a slim majority, that job becomes vital to ensure government business moves ahead smoothly and the opposition parties are given the opportunity to pass bills palatable to the Liberals. 

Navigating the give and take necessary to keep business moving through the House won't be easy. 

Potential retirements

The premier will also have to name a new deputy premier to replace Diana Whalen, who decided to sit out the last election. McNeil will celebrate his 15th anniversary as an MLA during this mandate, fuelling speculation he is starting to think about his political exit. That would give added significance to his choice as second in command.

Could this be the final mandate for Karen Casey? Her most recent post was as education minister. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Leo Glavine and Karen Casey, who were persuaded to run again, may also be in their last mandates.

Glavine has hinted he would like a break from the pressures of running the province's single largest department, Health. Although there's no similar sign from Casey, she has become a lightning rod for teachers unhappy with her hard line during recent contract talks.

Keith Colwell, the legislature's longest-serving MLA is in a similar situation, likely looking to retire after this mandate or possibly sooner. He is currently the minister of agriculture, fisheries and aquaculture.

McNeil may decide each needs or deserves a change.

Weighing the good and the bad

The Department of Community Services, in the midst of a reform, needs a new leader to replace Bernard. As does the Department of Energy, left orphaned by Samson's surprise electoral defeat.

McNeil knows more about his options than he did when he picked his first cabinet almost fours years ago, but that doesn't mean he has an easier job picking a new one.

His former ministers have a track record, both good and bad, and there's always pressure to bring new ideas to the table.

He still has plenty of options in metro Halifax but fewer on Cape Breton Island where there are only two Liberals MLAs: Transportation Minister Geoff MacLellan and backbencher Derek Mombourquette.

About the Author

Jean Laroche


Jean Laroche has been a CBC reporter for 32 years. He's been covering Nova Scotia politics since 1995 and has been at Province House longer than any sitting member.