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Manitoba Premier Gary Doer shuffled his cabinet yesterday, putting the finishing touches on the government team expected to face the electorate next spring.

He is aiming to become the first NDP premier in Manitoba to win three consecutive elections. But a Winnipeg Free Press poll this past summer showed the NDP trailing the Conservatives for the first time since their election in 1999, by five percentage points.

Mr. Doer used the cabinet shuffle -- prompted by the announced retirement of former health minister Tim Sale -- to promote members from marginal seats to higher-profile roles. He also moved Christine Melnick, the embattled minister of family services, to a new portfolio, water stewardship.

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Ms. Melnick was heavily criticized by the opposition after the death of five-year-old Phoenix Sinclair, who was allegedly killed by her foster parents and whose death went unnoticed for nearly a year.

Gord Mackintosh, praised by the Premier for his work in tackling organized crime as attorney-general, is the new Minister of Family Services. He is replaced as Attorney-General by Dave Chomiak. Theresa Oswald is the new Minister of Health.

Mr. Doer would not confirm yesterday that a spring election is in the offing, saying instead that with municipal elections this fall and a federal vote possible within the year, citizens may be "electioned out."

"One of the things I've always said is that we've got to call elections in the public interest," he said.

Mr. Doer has been Premier since 1999 and has led the Manitoba NDP for more than 18 years. Yesterday, he shrugged off the notion that he is now one of the senior statesmen of Canadian politics. After the resignation of Alberta's Ralph Klein and the defeat of Bernard Lord in New Brunswick, only Pat Binns of PEI has been premier longer.

"There's a lot of bright premiers in different provinces and I've always learned you get more things done by being part of a premiers' team, rather than by trying to stand apart," Mr. Doer said.

William Neville, a senior fellow in the department of political studies at the University of Manitoba, said the Doer government heads toward the next election weighed down by a few anchors.

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The Crocus Fund, an investment fund set up by the government and labour groups in the 1990s, has been a persistent problem. Manitoba's Auditor-General concluded that the fund's directors misled investors by overstating its value, but the Premier has resisted calls for a public inquiry.

"I have the sense that [Crocus]has already cost the government support, and it's hard to know whether it will get worse before it gets better," Prof. Neville said.

"It has been around long enough that it has acquired buzzword status, and people will recognize it as some kind of problem."

But he said newly elected Conservative Leader Hugh McFadyen will have to perform better if he is to unseat Mr. Doer. Mr. McFadyen made headlines recently when he said former NDP premier Howard Pawley had Communists in his cabinet and was inspired by socialist regimes in Eastern Europe.

Yesterday Mr. McFadyen criticized the shuffle, saying it showed the weakness of Mr. Doer's team. "There's a seven-year record of ignoring major problems," Mr. McFadyen said. "We're the last have-not province in Western Canada."

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