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JIM VIBERT: Premier McNeil needs to get in the loop

Premier Stephen McNeil answers questions about the 2020-21 budget at Province House on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020.
Taking the premier at his word, he was left in the dark even as party officials and his senior staff discussed a drunk-driving allegation involving MLA Hugh MacKay. - Ryan Taplin
Maybe Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil ought to hire some folks who will actually tell him what’s going on.

This week, we learned that the premier’s chief of staff, Laurie Graham, was in the loop last May when various Grits discussed an accusation of drunk driving against Chester-St. Margaret’s MLA Hugh MacKay.

Yet, we are asked to believe that she didn’t pass the word along to the premier that one of his backbencher MLAs was the focus of such attention, although not by the law, or at least not then. That was to come later.

As is the habit with these types of political problems, left unaddressed it returned with an unholy vengeance.

In October, five months after a few Liberals on the South Shore and some more in Halifax decided to look the other way, MacKay was stopped and charged with impaired driving.

He pleaded guilty to that offence, which happened over the Thanksgiving weekend, and said he was getting treatment for his alcohol problem.

After that conviction, information similar to what the Liberals had overlooked found its way to the RCMP who, upon careful consideration, laid another impaired driving charge against MacKay. That charge dates back to the same November 2018 incident that party officials chewed on and spit out in May.

MacKay is scheduled to answer the charge in court next month. He has taken his leave of the Liberal caucus, reportedly by mutual consent, so if he sits in the legislature at all, it will be as an independent.

The implications of all this may not be self-evident, so here’s how Opposition and Tory leader Tim Houston, who brought the matter to the floor of the legislature, spelled them out.

The Liberals had information that one of their MLAs was driving drunk, but they didn’t act on it. The MLA continued to drink and drive and he got caught some five months later.

Houston makes the case that, had Liberals acted on the information when they received it, MacKay might have gotten help sooner and the roads he travelled would have been that much safer for everyone, MacKay included, over the ensuing months.

Taking the premier at his word, he was left in the dark even as party officials and his senior staff discussed a serious allegation involving a Liberal MLA. Then, when that MLA was charged with a separate count of impaired driving, no one thought to tell the premier about the earlier allegation. With political friends like that, the Liberal premier doesn’t need Tories.

If any of this has a haunting echo, it could be because it’s only been a week since the premier said he was caught completely unawares by another issue that left an indelible mark on his government.

McNeil maintains that government lawyer Alex Cameron, a 26-year veteran of the Justice Department, acted without the consent or knowledge of his client — the government — when he advanced an argument in court that is deeply offensive to the Mi’kmaq.

That story got wafer thin last week, when documents the province went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada to try to keep under wraps, were unwrapped. The high court wasn’t interested in the case and sent Nova Scotia’s high-priced Toronto lawyers packing.

The documents show that a number of senior government officials knew, or should have known, what was in Cameron’s brief, but McNeil still claims he didn’t know its content until it broke into the open as a contentious issue.

So, in successive weeks, we’re told that senior government officials, senior party members and senior staff in the premier’s office all kept McNeil in the dark on matters of considerable importance to his government and/or his party.

Nova Scotians are to believe that senior government-types didn’t tell McNeil, who is also Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, that Cameron was going to court with a brief that Mi’kmaq leaders would find repulsive.

Nova Scotians are also asked to swallow the tale that Liberal Party officials and McNeil’s own staff didn’t tell him about allegations that a Liberal MLA was driving drunk, even after that MLA was convicted for impaired driving in a completely separate incident.

If all this is so, the premier really needs to figure out how to get looped in on what’s happening around him.

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