10/22/2013 04:00 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil relies on veterans to lead contentious files

ANNAPOLIS ROYAL, N.S. - Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil is relying on veteran members of his Liberal caucus to lead some of the province's most contentious files in naming his first cabinet Tuesday.

Diana Whalen was named finance minister, Leo Glavine serves as health minister, Karen Casey takes over at education and Andrew Younger will preside over energy — portfolios where all four served as Opposition critics. Casey also brings cabinet experience, having served as the education minister when she was in the Progressive Conservative government of Rodney MacDonald.

"Our decisions have to be thoughtful, recognizing that the ramifications of our decisions last long beyond any term we might hold in office," McNeil said after cabinet was sworn in by the lieutenant-governor.

Whalen, who is also the first woman to be named deputy premier, will face the task of dealing with what the Liberals believe is a deficit for this fiscal year, despite the previous NDP government's forecast of a slim surplus of $18.3 million. During the election campaign, McNeil cast doubt on that figure and ruled out reducing the harmonized sales tax unless Nova Scotia can register surpluses that would offset the decline in revenue of such a tax cut.

Whalen said the true state of the province's books will be known when the new government presents its first budget next spring.

"The budget is in place now for the year and we'll work through this year," Whalen said.

Glavine will be in charge of overseeing the government's promise to cut the number of health boards from 10 to two, a commitment that sparked criticism from the NDP that it would harm health-care delivery, particularly in rural regions. But McNeil has said the measure would save $13 million that can be put back into patient care.

McNeil, 48, hands one of the more controversial files to Younger, an outspoken critic of Nova Scotia Power in Opposition who will be responsible for keeping the Liberal party's promise to break the private utility's monopoly in the province by allowing others access to the province's electricity grid.

Casey, meanwhile, will be tasked with following through on caps on class sizes, a commitment that has proven difficult to implement in the past.

The 16-member cabinet — two more ministers than Darrell Dexter's NDP government had — includes nine veteran members of McNeil's caucus and six newly elected politicians.

McNeil, the province's 28th premier, said those in cabinet are aware there are many talented people who were left out and those who don't perform well won't remain in his inner circle.

"Hard work is required," McNeil said. "They need to know their files and they need to be leading their department."

Five ministers are women, including Halifax-area newcomer Lena Diab, who becomes the province's first female attorney general and justice minister.

"I could have appointed more, but I want to be very clear, no one made this cabinet based on gender alone," McNeil said.

Diab, a lawyer, said she was surprised to learn her appointment is a first.

"It's very exciting. I'm very grateful and humbled and feel very privileged to have been given the opportunity."

One of her first big jobs will be setting the terms of reference for a promised public inquiry into alleged abuse at a Halifax orphanage, the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children.

McNeil said his newly appointed minister for African-Nova Scotian affairs, Tony Ince, would also play a role in the inquiry. Ince gained prominence after narrowly defeating Dexter in his Halifax-area riding.

McNeil also singled out Community Services Minister Joanne Bernard, a newcomer who rose from social assistance to become a successful housing advocate.

"In 15 years, she went from being a recipient of community services to now being the minister," he said. "If anyone in my collective team understands the workings of that department, it would be our new minister."

The swearing-in ceremony comes two weeks after McNeil led the Liberals to victory, winning 33 of the legislature's 51 seats. It was held at a theatre in Annapolis Royal, the province's former capital city.

The Progressive Conservatives form the Opposition after they won 11 seats in the Oct. 8 election. The NDP has seven members.