The shuffle: big losses; missed opportunities

Wednesday’s smoothly orchestrated cabinet shuffle could not hide the central fact of the event: It is a big loss for the Dexter Government.

Graham Steele has been the strongest member of Darrell Dexter’s cabinet, turning in a sterling job at Finance while displaying a rare knack for speaking plainly, persuasively, and with conviction.

Bill Estabrooks’s departure likewise represents a big loss. He was the cabinet minister with the commonest touch, a popular, unpretentious man who did solid work putting systems in place for rational decision-making about road work. The province’s roadbuilding oligopoly was apoplectic over Estabrooks’s decision to set up a civil service paving plant, but taxpayers have already benefitted from sharper bidding in parts of the province where one contractor had buffaloed the competition.

Estabrooks was frank about the toll Parkinsons has taken on him; perhaps a more restful pace will slow its cruel progress. Steele was more coy about his reasons for leaving, insisting he has no job lined up but wants to chart a new, as yet undefined career course. The man most often touted as Dexter’s successor pointedly did not rule out an eventual return to elected office at the provincial or federal level.

As the only other minister approaching Steele’s stature, Maureen MacDonald is the logical choice to succeed him, but that leaves the important Health portfolio in the hands of rookie Dave Wilson, about whom I don’t know enough to venture a forecast.

Considering the number of under-performers who fill out the cabinet table, Wednesday’s shuffle was surprisingly minimalist. Several strong MLAs continue to languish on the back benches — Gary Burrill (Colchester-Musquodoboit Valley) and Clarrie MacKinnon (Pictou East) are two obvious examples — while Denise Peterson-Rafuse heads the list of ministers who have shown they are not up to the job.

Competence is only one of many factors that go into crafting a cabinet, and Darrell Dexter knows his caucus far better than I. But his continued willingness to countenance incompetence in a 12-member executive council is the most disquieting feature of his government.