With apologies to anyone opposed to the sport of horse racing, I am going to apply a racetrack analogy to the Nova Scotia Liberal leadership contest that began officially last Friday.

On most days at the track there are two classes of event – stakes races for big purses involving quality mounts and claiming races for the majority of horses who rarely see the winner’s circle. The Liberal leadership race is a mash up of the two. The stakes are high – the Premier’s office – but the entries are strictly claimers.

In alphabetical order we have Randy Delorey, the Health minister whose tenure has coincided with what has been described as a health care crisis, topped off by 57 deaths in nursing homes overseen by his department.

Then there is Labi Kousoulis, lately the Labour minister in a notoriously anti-labour government, and the post-secondary education boss who did nothing as university tuition fees in Nova Scotia became the highest in the country.

Finally, there is Iain Rankin minister of Lands and Forestry who wants to be seen as the environment candidate but will first have to deal with a record that includes permitting tire burning for fuel, and constant criticism from environmentalists over clear cutting on crown land.

Whichever one of the three wins, the attack lines from the opposition write themselves.

One should not be too hard on the contenders, however. They deserve credit for at least stepping forward and making it a contest, which is more than can be said for Liberals in Newfoundland and Labrador (last month) and New Brunswick (last year) who handed over party leadership to outsiders by acclamation.

Then again, going outside cabinet and caucus may have been a good idea for the Nova Scotia Liberals as well, considering that such a move could signal a change in direction. But McNeil’s departure announcement came too late for Halifax Mayor Mike Savage, who had already committed to running for a third term. And two other oft-mentioned possibilities, Scott Brison and Sean Fraser, decided to stay put – the former in the corporate world, the latter in the House of Commons.

McNeil record dominates

So the Liberals are left with the three runners they have, all weighed down by the baggage accumulated from seven-plus years of being part of the McNeil government.

They are handicapped by McNeil’s style of one-man rule. Because it was very much his government, none of his ministers established much of a public profile, particularly notable in the case of Delorey, who could have been front and center in the COVID crisis but disappeared instead. The fact he would resign to run for leader when the emergency is far from over is evidence of his marginalization.

Ultra-centralization of power in the Premier’s office meant strict message control to ensure no one strays from the government line, making it impossible for would-be successors from within government to even suggest any change in direction. That works better if the ship of state is cruising toward re-election but the Liberal tub has been taking on water since the last election.

Recall that in the 2017 election Liberal share of the popular vote dropped by over six percent and the party came within two seats of losing its majority in the legislature. The narrow victory was followed by relentless media-driven criticism of health care policy, focused mainly on the availability of family doctors and the failure of the Liberal-created Nova Scotia Health Authority to solve the perceived shortage. Then came renewal of battles with public sector workers, a continued stagnant economy and growing evidence of McNeil’s disdain for democratic institutions.

Their brand enhanced by the continued popularity of the Trudeau Liberals, the Nova Scotia version stayed on top in the polls, but support for McNeil has wavered. Angus Reid’s quarterly Premiers approval rating has generally put McNeil near the bottom among his peers, with his rating dropping to a dismal 16 percent in June 2019. This happened to coincide with a provincial by-election in Sackville-Cobequid, where Liberal support dropped close to single digits (10.4 per cent).

Like most Premiers, McNeil received a bump in support for his handling of the COVID-19 emergency, but that’s a mixed blessing. After five years during which poverty and family incomes grew worse and wages stagnated, the economy began to show improvement in 2019. Unfortunately, some of the main pillars of that turnaround – immigration, tourism and international trade – are sectors most jeopardized now by the pandemic. The pandemic has also wiped out the McNeil government’s primary raison d’etre – balanced budgets – with a projected provincial deficit of more than $850 million this year.

And finally there’s the seven-year itch – a phenomenon that may or may not be prevalent in marriages, but is certainly evident in relations between citizens and governments. After two or more terms in power, the notion that it’s time for a change has a basic appeal. It usually takes some combination of luck, inept opposition or a fresh new leader of an incumbent government to overcome that dynamic.

History no guide

The last time the Liberals were faced with picking a leader who would become premier was in 1997, four years into their mandate. It boiled down to a contest between Bernie Boudreau, a powerful minister who wanted to continue the unpopular policies of the John Savage government, and Russell MacLellan, the outsider who challenged many of them. The outsider won, and in the subsequent election the Liberals retained enough seats to stay in power with help from the Conservatives.

This time there is no outsider to credibly challenge the McNeil record and the campaign promises to be a content-free exercise. The winner will have the opportunity to bring in a throne speech and budget, the shape of which may be determined by how well “building on the McNeil government’s record” does in the polls. If it doesn’t resonate, the potential to change course will be limited by the winner’s association with that record.

“Time for a change” is a potent slogan to be used against a sitting government. Changing the person at the top of the incumbent government is a tactic that sometimes works, but barely – cases in point Russell MacLellan’s minority government in 1998 and Rodney MacDonald’s in 2006. Other times, the ploy succeeds spectacularly as with Trudeau The First in 1968. It can also fail ignominiously as it did when Brian Mulroney handed off his poisoned chalice to Kim Campbell in 1993.[1]

The success or failure of the Liberal effort to put a fresh face on a tired government will depend a lot on the opposition parties. The best way to counter faux change is to present leadership and policies that represent real change – and now is the time to do it. To go back to the track analogy, while the claimers are going at it, the opposition should be preparing for the stakes race.



[1] “Poisoned Chalice: How the Tories Self-Destructed” is a 1994 book by David McLaughlin detailing the events and currents leading up to the massive defeat of the government of newly-elected Conservative leader Kim Campbell.