Can anyone explain why Nova Scotia Liberals — this province’s natural governing party for much of the last century — seem so hell-bent on shooting themselves, their leaders and their chances of forming the next government, flush in the face?
Consider the last time there was a majority Liberal government in Nova Scotia.
In 1993, John Savage swept a tired Tory government from office, winning 40 of the legislature’s 52 seats. By 1997, however, Savage had been ignominiously forced from office, not by voters, but by unhappy members of his own party. Why? Because Savage had actually begun to do what he had promised to do — clean up the province’s corrupt patronage system — and eliminated some entitlements fellow Liberals felt entitled to.
Under Savage’s successor, bland, visionless, veteran federal MP Russell MacLellan, the Liberals squandered their advantages, stumbling and bumbling their way to opposition.
In 2000, MacLellan quit. It took party members two years to find a replacement but when they chose one, it seemed they had gotten it right.
Danny Graham was bright and articulated a progressive liberal vision. But when Graham’s wife became terminally ill less than two years later, Graham had to step down to take care of his young family.
And the Liberals stepped right back in it, choosing the ineffably incompetent Francis McKenize, whose freefall 2006 election campaign reduced the party to nine seats in the legislature, his own not among them.
So MacKenzie quit. If you’re counting, that’s four leaders, not to mention two interim leaders, in a little more than a decade, resulting in the election of 31 fewer MLAs.
The prize that current leader Stephen McNeil inherited with his second-ballot victory over fellow MLA Diana Whalen in April 2007 was hardly glorious.
How’s he done?
His record is mixed. He ran a strong 2009 election campaign, but his efforts went largely unrewarded, the voters having already decided to try someone else. The Liberals gained just two seats, enough to make it the Official Opposition. As Opposition leader, McNeil is still finding his feet.
But he has time. If he’s allowed the luxury to develop and mature — like Darrell Dexter and John Hamm before him — McNeil could very well lead his party to power someday.
This weekend in Antigonish, Liberal party members will vote on McNeil’s continued leadership. He will probably survive the review, but — thanks to too many malcontent party mischief makers — emerge the worse for the fight.
Which means the Liberal party will continue to do what it seems to do so well.
Do itself in.
– Stephen Kimber, the Rogers Communications Chair in Journalism at the University of Kings College, is the author of eight books.