It struck me at the time but I did not get around to writing about the sneaky way in which the Houston government approached the recent by-election in Pictou West. It looked like an underhanded abuse of power, but when the other parties didn’t complain I let it pass – just another example of despotism-lite that characterizes the actions of Nova Scotia’s PC government on several fronts. (See examples here and here ).

Now, however, amid talk of a snap general election, the Pictou West by-election takes on added significance as a trial balloon, testing reaction to a government flagrantly manipulating the democratic process to its advantage.  

You may recall that right after the spring session of the legislature ended Karla MacFarlane announced her resignation as MLA for Pictou West and Speaker of the legislature.Her resignation was unexpected, given that less than six months earlier a lot of fuss accompanied  her appointment as the Province’s first female Speaker. But if her departure came as a surprise to many Nova Scotians, the Premier and the Conservatives of Pictou West were not among them. 

MacFarlane announced her decision to resign on April 5, to be effective April 12. Obviously prepared, local Tories set April 15 as a deadline for nominations to replace MacFarlane, and April 18 for the candidate selection meeting that chose Marco MacLeod in a two-way race. Ducks in a row (and the other parties scrambling to find candidates) Houston called the byelection on April 21 for a vote on May 21, setting up the minimum 30-day campaign period. The hustle came off swimmingly for the governing party with MacLeod getting 71.9 percent of the vote, an improvement over MacFarlane’s 63.6 percent share in 2021. 

So Pictou West was done and dusted with indecent haste – a little over five weeks passed between the seat becoming vacant and the by-election. In recent years there have been several examples of by-elections in which there was a similar short period between an official vacancy and the by-election call but those involved MLAs who announced months ahead of their official resignations that they would be quitting to run in the 2019 federal election. 

The surprise resignation and rush to the polls in Pictou West was highly unusual – the more common pattern being the one Houston followed in Preston. There was a gap of more than three months between the Preston seat becoming officially vacant and the August 2023 by-election – and more than six months between the by-election and the incumbent MLA’s resignation announcement.

Back to the Future?

The possibility that the hurry-up offence displayed in Pictou West could be a harbinger of things to come for the rest of the province became real a few weeks ago when Houston said he  would not be bound by the fixed election act he introduced as his government’s first piece of legislation in the autumn of 2021.

Instead of the election coming, in accordance with the legislation, on the third Tuesday in July 2025, Houston said the date will be determined by “circumstances” as dictated by “the people.” In an audacious display of guile, the PC leader made the following utterance:

When it becomes time for the people to have their say, I think it would be pretty selfish for me to say ‘No, you have to wait because it doesn’t suit the political legislation that was passed.’ 

If, as is now widely expected, Houston drops the writ in the near future, it would be fascinating to hear how he was able to discern the desire of the people to “have their say” a year or so ahead of schedule. Just because he got away with slippery practices in Pictou doesn’t mean he will get a free ride in a general election.

Houston will also have to defend not just the disavowal of his own fixed election law but also his defiance of a convention established by his predecessors over the last 40 years. 

When he introduced the fixed election bill in 2021, Houston was critical of former governments for failing to act on recommendations from Elections Nova Scotia for a fixed date. However, when those governments had a solid majority, as Houston does, going back almost four decades none went to the polls before completing all or most of a four-year mandate. 

For the record, these governments waited four or more years between elections: Buchanan-Cameron 1988-93; Savage-MacLellan 1993-8; Hamm 1999-03; Dexter 2009-13, McNeil 2013-17; McNeil-Rankin 2017-21.

Three minority governments – MacLellan (1998-9), Hamm-MacDonald (2003-6) and MacDonald (2006-9) – lasted less than four years. But to find a majority government calling a snap election you have to go back to John Buchanan’s PC government in 1984. In fact, Buchanan did it twice, in 1984 and 1981. 

Some long-in-the-tooth observers have discerned similarities between the Houston government and the late and unlamented Buchanan administration – their propensity to run up the debt and cosy up to developers for example. Snap elections may soon be added to the list, along with another reflex they have in common – fed bashing over energy policy as an excuse for going early to the polls. 

In 1981 Buchanan justified calling an election after less than three years of his mandate by saying he needed a new mandate to negotiate an offshore oil and gas deal with the Pierre Trudeau government. In 2024, Tim Houston is calling on supporters to get behind the party’s “game-changing investments in healthcare,” the “largest tax cut in our history” and their “campaign against the Trudeau carbon tax.” As we say en Francais, plus ça change…..