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JIM VIBERT: McNeil’s departure brings the end of tough love

Hundreds of people joined in a march down East River Road Monday afternoon that was organized by the Nova Scotia Teachers Union to send their message on the labour dispute to the provincial government.
A protest organized by the Nova Scotia Teachers Union is held in New Glasgow. Premier Stephen McNeil's first term was marked by bitter clashes with the labour sector. - File

Nova Scotians will have to learn to live without tough love.

Premier Stephen McNeil’s announcement Thursday caught everyone by surprise. It shocked many political observers, who had heard him say more than once that he’d be leading the Liberal Party into the next provincial election.

He won’t be, and where that leaves the Liberals’ electoral chances depends on your perspective.

A new leader tends to breathe new life into a political party, and after seven years in power, any party could use some new life. Indeed, McNeil himself suggested as much when he announced his departure.

The opposite view is that McNeil is leaving at the height of his political popularity – popularity earned during what will be remembered as his most difficult days in the premier’s office and should be remembered as some of his finest.

The party had a good chance of winning a third consecutive government had he stayed on.

Whatever your opinion of McNeil as premier, try to be objective and admit that during the dark days of the COVID-19 lockdown, McNeil’s brand of tough love was exactly what Nova Scotians needed.

The premier listened to the experts and knew how bad it could get. He used that knowledge to convince his fellow Nova Scotians that there was one way, and only one way, to flatten the curve.

“Stay the blazes home,” is a phrase that will spring to mind for many Nova Scotians when they think of Premier McNeil. It became a rallying cry for Nova Scotians to do the right thing so the virus wouldn’t overwhelm us like it has others.

Those same traits that carried us through the COVID-19 lockdown haven’t always been seen in a positive light by all Nova Scotians.

Labour sector battles

McNeil’s first term seemed a constant battle between the government, personified by the tough-talking premier, and public-sector unions.

He made reference to those days Thursday, reminding us that during his first years in office, Province House was almost perpetually ringed by someone protesting his government’s actions.

McNeil’s battles with public-sector unions weren’t driven by ideology, but rather by his pragmatic approach to governing.

Convinced that Nova Scotia had to live within its means, and fully aware that salaries make up the lion’s share of the provincial budget, McNeil put two and two together. The result was four years of labour unrest, but also a string of balanced budgets that only disappeared into the revenue loss and extra spending that accompanied the arrival of the coronavirus.

The premier’s surprise announcement will have some people reading between the lines in search of “the real reason” he’s leaving.

A close friend and confidante of McNeil’s, who spoke on the understanding that his name would not appear here, told me to take the premier at his word.

After 17 years in the legislature, six as leader of the official Opposition and seven as premier, McNeil believes it is time to go, spend more time with his family and a little more time on the golf course, where, despite rare appearances, he still manages to play a respectable game.

Every politician comes with a “best before” date and whether he is right or wrong, Stephen McNeil has decided that his is up. He said the decision was made back in the spring but, like most Nova Scotians, the pandemic delayed his plans.

Politically, he’ll be remembered as the first premier to lead his party to successive majority governments since John Buchanan did it with four straight starting in 1978.

While McNeil’s time in office has been marked by labour unrest and battles with doctors and film-makers, it was also a time when Nova Scotia’s economy looked about as good as it ever has. Exports grew and so did the province’s population, which actually got younger during his tenure.

He carried us through COVID-19 and he gave voice to our collective heartbreak after the horrors of April 18 and 19.

Quick succession likely

All in all, I think history will be kinder to Premier McNeil than I ever was.

With his departure, attention immediately turns to possible successors.

Next May 30, the Liberals mark the fourth anniversary of their 2017 election win and enter the final year of their five-year mandate. Governments in Nova Scotia tend to lose when they go to the polls in Year 5.

So the Liberals will be looking to find McNeil’s successor as quickly as possible.

One of the first names that rolls off many Liberal tongues is that of Central Nova MP Sean Fraser. The 36-year- old lawyer and Pictou County native has made a favourable impression on Nova Scotia Grits and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who named him parliamentary secretary to Finance Minister Bill Morneau.

From within the provincial Liberal caucus – and McNeil’s cabinet – likely contenders include Education Minister and Yarmouth MLA Zach Churchill and possibly Justice Minister and Lunenburg West MLA Mark Furey, although word is Furey isn’t interested in the top job. That can change.

The Liberals will also want a woman in the race, and the best bet there is Community Services Minister Kelly Regan from Bedford, who has performed well in government and is popular in the party.

Whoever succeeds McNeil will have big shoes to fill, figuratively and literally. The guy stands six-foot-seven and has the shoe size to match.

And for the past decade, he has been the undisputed, unchallenged leader and the face and voice of the Liberal Party in Nova Scotia.


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