Remarkably similar lists of potential candidates have been making the rounds since McNeil and 32 other Liberals were elected to govern with a strong majority on Oct. 8, ending the party's 14-year trek through the political wilderness.
Virtually all of the most important appointments will be filled by senior politicians with previous experience in cabinet or as critics, pundits say.
That list includes: Diana Whalen, the party's finance critic; justice critic and former cabinet minister Michel Samson; health critic Leo Glavine; former Conservative education minister Karen Casey; caucus whip Kelly Regan and energy critic Andrew Younger.
Among the newcomers getting attention are: Halifax entrepreneur Joachim Stroink; business professor Randy Delorey from St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish; Dartmouth housing advocate Joanne Bernard; former Guysborough warden Lloyd Hines and retired RCMP commander Mark Furey, who represents Lunenburg West.
"They are blessed with good talent," says Rob Batherson, former communications director for former Conservative premier John Hamm.
However, experience is just one of several factors McNeil will be considering when handing out portfolios. The cabinet must also reflect a broad cross-section of the province's geography and its ethnic, racial and linguistic mixture.
Getting the right geographic balance can complicate matters, Batherson says.
"It's going to be a challenge that the new government faces," he said, pointing out that some experienced members could get squeezed out of a cabinet post because too many of them represent Halifax-area ridings. The party won 17 of the 19 seats in the Halifax region.
As well, Batherson said it would be a mistake to assume that those with expertise in certain areas will be given cabinet posts.
"Sometimes, professional background isn't necessarily the natural predictor of success," he said.
In the 1990s, for example, then Liberal education minister John MacEachern — a former teacher — faced widespread criticism for the way he went about amalgamating school boards and revising the Education Act, Batherson said.
"There was a fair bit of turmoil," Batherson said. "There was a belief that whatever influences had carried John in his career of teaching, that had an impact on how he was as minister of education."
David Johnson, a political science professor at Cape Breton University, says newly elected members with good resumes can sometimes have the edge over seasoned former ministers and critics with political baggage.
"Sometimes a premier or a prime minister is looking for a clean slate," Johnson says. "You want people with deep knowledge who aren't ideologically fixated on certain policies that may breed opposition from within the public service."
Aside from experience and geography, McNeil must also ensure there is an adequate number of women and ethnic minorities in cabinet.
Two Halifax-area rookies, former teacher Patricia Arab and lawyer Lena Diab, are both of Lebanese descent. Diab is also an award-winning volunteer who served as president of the Canadian Lebanon Society of Halifax.
"It would be an important consideration for the premier to elevate the status of the visible minority community," Johnson says. With a declining population, Nova Scotia will be looking to immigration to reverse the shrinkage.
The Liberal caucus also includes two African-Nova Scotians from the Halifax area, former youth counsellor Tony Ince and Stephen Gough, a pastor and transmission technician.
Johnson says premiers and prime ministers must also be careful not to surround themselves with older cronies and "yes men," which means opening the cabinet to younger members who can take on junior portfolios.
And any good leader should always be watching for internal challengers, Johnson adds, noting that Diana Whalen ran against McNeil for the Liberal leadership in 2007.
"One way to control them and put a leash on them is to put them in cabinet," he says.
McNeil has already said his cabinet will include more than 12 members, based on his belief that the NDP government struggled to govern early in its mandate with a dozen ministers.
John Hamm started his mandate in 1999 with only 10 ministers, a decision that sparked criticism from ministers who were soon overwhelmed by holding multiple cabinet posts.
Within a few months of taking office, Hamm shuffled his cabinet and relieved Gordon Balser of the transportation file. Balser was already responsible for the Economic Development Department, the Petroleum Directorate and Crown-owned Sydney Steel Corp.Suggest a correction