NS PC Leadership Race – Memberships are in, now things get exciting

The race is on and the finish line is October 27th.  That is the date when Nova Scotia’s Progressive Conservative Party will select a new leader.  For months five very capable candidates have been journeying the province, meeting with current Tories, and signing up as many new members as possible.  Their objective?  To safeguard as many votes as possible and win the top job as party leader.

Vying for the position are current MLAs Elizabeth Smith-McCrossin, John Lohr, and Tim Houston.  In addition to these three, two other people have put their name forward.  A relative new comer Julie Chaisson is running along with a long time PC, former MLA, and current Mayor of Cape Breton Regional Municipality, Cecil Clarke. 

From the sidelines, this leadership campaign feels like it has been three times longer than necessary.  Former leader Jamie Baillie left the role in January 2018 after breaking the news of his pending departure in the fall of 2017.  Holding the leadership convention in October 2018 makes it over a year from Baillie’s notice.  Critics suggest the wait is the result of poor organization, a calculated delay to sign up more members, or a combination of both.

The PC’s scheduled five official leadership debates across the province.  While attendance was strong, substance was dreadful.  In what can only be called a peculiar debate format, candidates were literally prohibited from speaking to one another.  No interaction at all.  It made for some rather humdrum moments with each successive debate becoming more uncomfortable than the previous.

The run-of-the-mill hosts, lengthy questions, and requirement to raise a paddle to rebut a topic were not conducive to an informative and open debate.  To say these events were boring, uninformative and repetitive would be kind.  If this represents the reformation of the once powerful Progressive Conservatives, they have work to do.  The organizers appeared more concerned about cutting off candidates microphones with split second accuracy than they were with educating the membership.

The party also had an amateurish setup for online streaming of the debates with grainy uncontrolled video and terrible audio.  At one debate, the video disappeared completely near the end and at another the camera began to randomly zoom in on candidate’s abdominal areas while they spoke.  In this era of social media dominance, live streaming is very important.  It was a missed opportunity to display a new and vibrant party to a vast audience of potential voters.

Another inauspicious decision for the party is their convention location.  Leadership events are exclusively held at large hotels or similar complexes in urban centres.  The intent is to maximize media and delegate attendance. More importantly it provides the right atmosphere to have the party under one roof to hopefully rally behind the new leader. 

Not this time.  The convention is being held at a suburban facility which is little more than a converted hockey rink with no accommodations within waking distance.  Delegates will be scattered all over the metro area at hotels.  Hardly a recipe to steal the headlines and achieve party coherence.  One wonders how this could happen with a full year to find a more suitable location.   

Some long-time party members see these missed opportunities as a sign it may be prudent to truly revitalize the Nova Scotia Progressive Conservatives top to bottom.  Some well respected political commentators suggest a poorly defined policy platform and mediocre PC campaign gave the Liberals a second majority in the last election.  Expectations of Baillie taking a minority win went off the rails mostly because the Halifax area breakthrough was thwarted.  Their “all-star” lineup did not resonate with the electorate as anticipated.

The new leader will need to assess what happened in 2017 and fix it.  There is a short window to put a fresh face on the party.  They need to find candidates that identify with the electorate in diverse ridings.  The use of “resume” candidates has cost them many seats that have traditionally been PC strongholds. 

All five candidates have another obstacle.  Interim leader Karla MacFarlane has been immensely popular with the public and done well in the Legislature.  This will leave a void they will need to fill quickly. That may prove difficult as the tone of the campaign has been nasty at times and “true” solidarity will not come easily.

Given these challenges the new leader has their hands full.  Let’s look at the candidates, their policies and a brief analysis of what to expect for them on October 27th.

Julie Chiasson is a new face to politics.  She ran in the 2017 election in Chester St.-Margaret’s Bay and lost.  She had a limited campaign with less than 4 weeks to build her reputation and still did well.  Her bid for the PC leadership is based on transformation of our approach to government.  She champions a fresh perspective on old problems facing NS.  Her bold new direction slogan is stronger than just changing the captain of the ship; she wants to sell the ship and get an airplane.  Chaisson offers a wealth of real-world experience in leadership, transformation and business development.

Chaisson has bold ideas about modernizing government with improved information management to permit more online services, better healthcare and enhanced program assessments.  Other campaign ideas include simplifying the organizational structure in health, using attrition to transform the civil service, and lowering the HST from 15% to 13%. 

To say Chaisson will have a tough job knocking off the front runners is reasonable.  She is a new comer, but still has ideas garnering respect.  Chaisson is a straight shooter who listens before speaking.  Her performance in the debates improved exponentially.  Of all the candidates, Chaisson did the best job of using the debates to win support.  Will it be enough?  Probably not, but expect to see her in the legislature after the next election.

Elizabeth Smith-McCrossin is the second of two female candidates and the MLA for Cumberland North.  Smith-McCrossin is new to politics entering in 2017.  As an MLA she has served as the party’s health critic for a year until entering the leadership race.  She has a background in healthcare and as an entrepreneur in the Amherst area.

Smith-McCrossin’s policies are heavily weighted towards healthcare reform.  She pledges to attract more doctors to NS, restore rural emergency room locums (had to look that one up), more long-term care beds and to change the health board.  Originally, at a minimum, she called for medical professionals to be on the Health Authority Board.  Now she’s advanced that position supporting firing the board and CEO. 

Smith-McCrossin also wants to deliver a mega tax break to kick start the province’s economy.  She has included much needed tax breaks for small businesses and corporations. There is also a $15,000 increase in the basic personal exemption for Nova Scotians making under $75,000.  Surprisingly, she added a similar $10,000 break for everyone above $75,000 which applies to the richest Nova Scotians.

Smith-McCrossin is considered as a potential leader, the question is when.  After emerging in the race with a strong message, a poor choice of words in the legislature related to marijuana legalization left the MLA apologizing for comments some deemed as racist towards Jamaicans.

She’s shown she can hold her own on the debate stage and delivers messages with passion.  Her popularity in Northern Nova Scotia will provide her with a solid base heading into the convention in October.  Smith-McCrossin needs support in Halifax and Cape Breton to win.  While a victory is possible, it will take a strong effort to secure undecided members and sway others to join her before the convention.

John Lohr, or Farmer John as he is known to many, is the MLA for Kings North.  First elected in 2013 by a slim 21 vote margin, Lohr increased that to over 1000 in 2017.  Lohr is a strong conservative who does not stray from his beliefs.  He has been a successful farmer and entrepreneur for many years in the Annapolis Valley.

Lohr’s policies are well defined.  Of the candidates, John Lohr is the person offering the clearest view of how he would lead as Premier.  Lohr picked up new support at the first debate by calling for the firing of the NS Health Authority Board and CEO.  He also promotes the hiring of more doctors for a fair wage and providing them the right to abstain from medically assisted dying. 

Lohr opposes the carbon tax, fracking ban, and paying tax on used cars.  He vows to end the Nova Scotia Liquor Commission monopoly, create a fulltime Agriculture Minister, fix election dates, protect the forestry industry and fight for religious freedoms.

Lohr, like Smith-McCrossin, is a potential winner.  He has the tools.  The question, is the timing right for his policies?  Lohr has been a vocal supporter of a highly debated pulp mill project in Pictou County and a proponent of fracking.  He has support in the party for these positions, but it is soft.  Tories know environmental issues are problematic in general elections.  Lohr will need to work hard reassuring his base and the undecided PC’s he can sell these positions if chosen as leader.

Tim Houston is the MLA for Pictou East and first elected in 2013.  In 2017 he won again.  This time with 74% of the votes casted in his riding.  It was the biggest PC margin of victory in the province.  Houston was Finance critic and a member of public accounts for five years until entering the leadership race.  He was the first to announce his candidacy in November 2017. 

Before entering politics, Houston spent 20 years in the private sector as an accountant.  He has local and international business experience dealing with large and small corporations.  He spent 12 years in Bermuda helping troubled companies rebuild.  The NS NDP attacked Houston when the now notorious “Paradise Papers” listed his name.  It was later found out nothing nefarious was associated with Houston or his employer and no Canadian or personal taxes were ever involved.

Houston is considered a front runner.  In a contest where selling memberships is more important than selling ideas, he has figured out how to do both.  He’s been challenged during the debates for bold ideas like no provincial income tax for people under 26 to help retain our youth.  He is a hard nose battler with a soft touch.  Houston has a track record of being relentless when attempting to get to the bottom of issues.  A trait that has ruffled the feathers of some MLA’s and Deputy Ministers. 

Houston promises to fix problems not procrastinate, strengthen constituencies, model and expand a successful chronic illness treatment plan, create a department of Mental Health and institute a new standing committee on Health.  His economic plans are focused on keeping young people at home, lowering taxes, restoring the film industry, and ensuring agriculture is world class in Nova Scotia.  He’s also calling for more teaching assistants in NS classrooms, skills training in High Schools and decentralized decision making in Education.  Houston is committed to helping seniors and their caregivers, fighting the carbon tax and reducing interprovincial trade barriers.

If the Liberals want to run on their record of fiscal management, Houston is the last person they desire in the leadership role.  However, he does have some challenges.  His candidate roster may end up looking very much like the one Jamie Baillie lost with in 2017.  A good number of those candidates have stayed active in their constituencies and many have been part of Houston’s campaign for leader.  He will have a tough time changing the face of the party with the same team composition.

The most experienced politician running for the leadership is Cecil Clarke.  Currently in his second term as mayor of the Cape Breton Regional Municipality, Clarke served as MLA for Cape Breton North for over 10 years.  He held cabinet posts in Economic Development, Energy, Justice and Attorney General.  He was also Speaker of the House of Assembly in 2006-07.  Clarke was considered a contender to lead the party in 2006 and again in 2009, but declined to run both times.

Clarke, a very private man, entered into this leadership campaign shortly after announcing he was gay and in a committed relationship.  Clarke stated he had been threatened with being outed.  He vowed he would not have his reputation as a politician clouded by the notion that being gay, in this day and age, is a bad thing.  Clarke hit the ground running and immediately became a front runner relying on his extensive experience in public office.

Clarke vows to engage the party in a substantial grassroots policy initiative to revitalize it.  He is against the carbon tax and pledges to lower the overall tax burden.  He has also called for Ottawa to confirm the shipbuilding deal for new ships to stay in Nova Scotia.  Clarke promises to restore local decision making to healthcare and promises to make seniors a priority.

Clarke’s placed his name at the head of the pack and has had some solid performances at the debates to back that up.  His history within the party is full of alliances and relationships sure to improve his chances of picking up member’s votes.  Some suggest his years of public service comes with baggage.  Clarke disagrees and stands on his proven record and experience.  If there is anything that may work against him, it is the absence of a safe seat for him to slide into through a by-election.  Leading from outside the house is not an ideal scenario.  Clarke’s also taken criticism for staying on as CBRM mayor while he runs for leader.

So, who will win?  It should be the person with the largest number of committed supporters.  This is where the politics of party leadership races get ugly.  In most cases, the people who signed up to support a candidate will mail in their ballot, cancel their membership and likely never join a political party again. 

In many cases they may vote Liberal or NDP and not belong to any party come the next election.  The race is not always about selecting the best ideas, it is about selling and counting memberships.  The process is open to manipulation and conventions tend to be seedy events where treachery often rears its ugly head.

From my viewpoint this race is down to Clarke and Houston.  Right now, I don’t think there is any question that Houston has outsold the other candidates in the membership category because he has been going strong since November.  Some estimates are that a first ballot victory for him is possible.  I think if support numbers stay the same, that is likely.  However, that old seductress ‘Rosy Scenario’ can cause complacency.

Complacency is what Cecil Clarke is hoping for and don’t count him out.  The man has been around this game for a long time and knows the angles.  Clarke must spend the next six weeks or so converting two groups of people.  He needs all the undecided Tories he can get.  He also needs to appeal to the people supporting Lohr, Chaisson and Smith-McCrossin to back his campaign to keep Houston out of the leader’s seat.  Last minute deals on the convention floor are not as effective with the mail in ballot system.  His team will need to get to work on their conversion strategies and alliances immediately.

Does someone other than Clarke have a realistic chance at stopping Tim Houston?  I cannot see it.  Then again politics is like the late President John F. Kennedy said, “You know nothing for sure…except the fact that you know nothing for sure.”    

By Jamie Barrie