By Chad Bowie
STEPHEN McNEIL’s MISSION: AVOID DEATH BY A THOUSAND CUTS
Nova Scotia’s Premier, Stephen McNeil, needs to be on his toes. If he is truly undecided about seeking a third term, as in-the-know Liberals maintain is the case, the Premier needs to take extra care to ensure rot doesn’t set into his aging government – or worse, his personal brand.
This week, a faint whiff of scandal was in the air as questions were raised regarding why a racetrack in the Premier’s own constituency of Annapolis benefited from a special deal.
In short, when deals like this happen it’s expected for each of our three levels of government – federal, provincial, and municipal – to pony up equally to cover costs. Uniquely, the province covered the municipality’s share on the Annapolis County racetrack deal.
Perhaps it’s not quite a full-blown scandal, but it’s all a little smelly.
Opposition leader Tim Houston was measured in his response. Instead of immediately leveling charges of corruption against the government, as opposition leaders are prone to do, Houston stuck to process and challenged he Premier to explain why other municipalities don’t get the same treatment from McNeil’s government.
It’s a noble, elegant approach. Time will tell how well it works.
Regardless, the problem is this isn’t the first time McNeil has had to face questions about showing special treatment to his neck of the woods.
In 2016 the Premier found himself under fire when, inexplicably, construction on two new schools was announced well ahead of schools in communities with far greater needs. One of the new schools announced was in Education Minister Karen Casey’s constituency, and the other in Stephen McNeil’s.
One can be cast aside as a mistake (if you’re being especially generous in your assumptions). Two is a pattern. Three… Well, three can be very, very bad – politically speaking.
Before long, McNeil’s political opponents will begin connecting the dots for an increasingly fidgety (and anti-politician) electorate. It doesn’t matter whether McNeil truly has allowed – or created – a culture of scandal and impropriety. What matters is whether he has to answer difficult questions.
McNeil’s government is now six years old – give or take a few months. Normally, that’s about the point where the scandals start to pile up and people begin wondering about making a change. For McNeil, it’s the worst possible time for questions about his own integrity.
That’s because after more than a decade at the helm of the Liberal Party, McNeil has a long list of potential successors who would be happy to see him fall – though they’ll never admit it.
Within his caucus, McNeil has several potential replacements. On the outside, a newly liberated Scott Brison may begin to lay the groundwork for a run at the province’s top job. Halifax Mayor Mike Savage continues to loom in the background as well.
If McNeil’s own conduct and perceived trust issues put the Liberal government on the defensive, McNeil could well see his dreams of a third term – if he indeed harbours them – go up in smoke.
To be fair, the questions being asked about the Premier showing favouritism to his own constituency are far from the worst thing he could be accused of. At home, it’s likely to help!
But at this point, McNeil doesn’t have to worry about the home front. His mission, if he wants a threepeat, is to avoid being perceived as a drag on his own party. To accomplish that, he needs to be squeaky clean.
In politics, death is often a long, arduous, process – death by a thousand cuts.
Nova Scotia Liberals will do well to remember that the roots of the sponsorship scandal, which ultimately played a big role in the defeat of the Chretien/Martin government, date back to 1996 – a full decade before Canadians finally tossed the Grits from office and kicked off ten years of Conservative rule under Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
The lesson: what may appear at first blush to be a minor ethical lapse has the potential to snowball if not curtailed.
If McNeil continues to find himself at the centre of controversy – no matter how insignificant each incident appears at the outset – Liberals will begin to wonder whether they’re better off to jettison the dead weight before the electorate wakes up.
At least, they should.
Of course, it’s worth noting McNeil still has a lot going for him. After six years in office, his Party continues to outpoll his nearest opponents and he’s racked up some impressive, if divisive, legislative achievements. Even his main opponent routinely credits him with balancing the province’s books.
Plus, his caucus, at least outwardly, stands by him. He also benefits from the experience that comes with leading his party through three election campaigns. The value of that cannot be overstated.
Still – one or two more questions like the ones surrounding the Annapolis County racetrack or the school that jumped in queue in his backyard could put McNeil in a very vulnerable position.
If that happens, he won’t have to worry about answering Tim Houston’s gentlemanly queries. It’s the questions coming from the Liberal caucus table that will give him the most trouble – and I doubt they’ll be all that friendly.
Chad Bowie is a long-time conservative political strategist. He is also a direct marketing and political consultant. He owns Chad Bowie Consulting.