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Paul Martin's cabinet in a second-chance term

Think of it as a continuity cabinet. As he made clear with his choices of ministers this week, Prime Minister Paul Martin is sticking to the configuration he knows. Most of those who were on board in the last cabinet remain on board. Ralph Goodale stays at Finance and Anne McLellan at Public Safety, both wise decisions. Irwin Cotler remains in Justice, where his first task should be to help Mr. Martin find two excellent judges for the Supreme Court of Canada.

Mr. Martin's most significant changes were forced upon him. David Pratt's election loss meant a vacancy at Defence, which was filled by Bill Graham, whose spot at Foreign Affairs went to Pierre Pettigrew, whose spot at Health went to newcomer Ussal Dosanjh. Mr. Dosanjh has a lot riding on his untested shoulders, being in for difficult negotiations with the premiers (including B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell, who defeated Mr. Dosanjh and his provincial NDP) over medicare and the powers of a national health council.

There are two ways to look at Mr. Martin's stand-pat group. The optimistic one is that he is seeking stability in the unstable climate of a minority government, and will rely on his ministers to get quickly up to speed. The pessimistic one is that it will be business as usual, which is to say very little business. The Prime Minister's first nine months in the job were a model of opportunities lost; his lack of a clear vision translated into a lack of action. This is his chance to show that his first outing was a misstep rather than an omen.

Mr. Martin has invited former intergovernmental affairs minister Stéphane Dion back into the cabinet, which seems only fair, since the redoubtable Mr. Dion helped save Mr. Martin's bacon in Quebec during the campaign. Environment is an odd choice of portfolio for Mr. Dion, however. He would have been a better choice for Indian Affairs, where he could have spoken the truth on a difficult and delicate subject as he did on Quebec separatism as intergovernmental affairs minister. But then, Mr. Martin sent a strong signal last year in favour of the status quo by repudiating former minister Bob Nault's plan to legislate greater openness on reserves. His choice for Indian Affairs Minister is Andy Scott, the former solicitor-general who, in addition to blabbing sensitive information on an airplane flight in 1998, said the five hours he had spent in an aboriginal sweat lodge was the single most profound experience of his life.

Jean Lapierre is in cabinet despite having helped make a hash of the Quebec campaign -- a signal that Mr. Martin's loyalty to his friends trumps astute politics. Mr. Lapierre has a steep learning curve ahead of him if he hopes to do justice to his post at Transport, which should include expanding the open-skies policy to improve air travel for Canadians.

This is only a partial snapshot of the team Mr. Martin is likely to count on until the next election. The timing of that election will depend on how well the team performs, and on how well new House Leader Tony Valeri -- the man who must woo other parties to support the Liberal minority -- can count. Keep an eye open for any sign of a vision.

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