01/13/2012 12:15 EST | Updated 03/14/2012 05:12 EDT

Rookie backbenchers move up in Manitoba cabinet shuffle

WINNIPEG - Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger elevated two rookie backbenchers to his cabinet Friday and created a new department that will focus on children's services.

Kevin Chief, a former youth programming co-ordinator in Winnipeg's inner-city who was first elected to the legislature last October, will head a new Department of Children and Youth Opportunities.

Selinger said the department will take over some existing programs in Health, Family Services and other departments.

"It will put services for young people and children in one department, on the prevention side, so that we can make those investments and put together those programs and activities that will prevent crime and allow young people to have the opportunity to thrive in our communities," he said.

The department will also launch new initiatives such as after-school programs, Selinger added.

The new department comes at a time when the province is running a deficit, and Selinger said the cost of the new department will be made clear in the spring budget.

The opposition said it worries the new department may be window dressing.

"New departments are sometimes a little bit of eye-candy for people to look at, but I don't know if it really changes a lot," Progressive Conservative deputy leader Kelvin Goertzen said.

Goertzen pointed to the department of Water Stewardship, which was carved out of conservation several years ago and given a stand-alone minister. Responsibility for water stewardship was folded back into the conservation minister's duties Friday.

The other rookie appointed to cabinet Friday is Ron Kostyshyn, a farmer and former municipal leader in the Swan River constituency in western Manitoba. Kostyshyn takes over the agriculture portfolio from Stan Struthers, who has been juggling both agriculture and finance since October.

The other cabinet changes see existing ministers given new or added responsibilities:

— Labour Minister and government house leader Jennifer Howard adds family services to her duties.

— Former family services minister Gord Mackintosh moves to conservation.

— Christine Melnick moves from water stewardship to immigration and multiculturalism.

— Healthy Living Minister Jim Rondeau takes on the additional responsibility for consumer affairs.

Liberal Party Leader Jon Gerrard said Mackintosh's move out of family services is suspicious, because it comes months before an inquiry into the province's trouble child welfare system.

A judicial inquiry, expected to start in the spring, will look at the death of Phoenix Sinclair, a young girl brutally killed by her mother and step-father in 2005 after case workers returned the child to her mother. The death went unnoticed for months before her body was found in a shallow grave.

"(The shuffle) is a way to make sure (Mackintosh) does not have to answer for his mistakes," Gerrard said in a written statement.

Rachel Morgan, a spokesperson for Mackintosh, pointed out Mackintosh was appointed family services minister in 2006, months after the death was discovered.

The creation of a new department may come as no surprise to Selinger supporters. Before he entered politics, he was a social worker in Winnipeg's inner-city. He has spoken frequently about a desire to ensure that disadvantaged young people get opportunities to further their education and avoid trouble on the streets.