Tories look ahead to a comeback
Political parties always try to sound upbeat coming out of convention but Nova Scotia’s Progressive Conservatives sounded like they meant it in Halifax last weekend. As party president Rob Batherson pointed out, this annual general meeting felt a lot different from 1994, the convention that followed the ascension of a Liberal majority government under John Savage.
At that time the Tories were beaten, humiliated, even disgraced. Few could have hoped that they’d form another majority government before the decade was out, but that’s what happened.
There are parallels. The Savage Liberals carried expectations of social progressivism but within months their agenda has been hijacked by near panic over the horrendous state of the province’s finances. The medicine was unpopular. The fiscal situation is not as dire for the new NDP government but the task of a progressive party selling fiscal restraint is no less daunting.
The PCs know it will be a long four years for the government. The NDP’s stumbles out of the gate, reneging on major election promises and embarrassing itself with stories of excessive expense spending, can only accelerate the fading of the bloom. It doesn’t help the PC cause that in second place on the list of expense abuses flagged last week by the auditor general is a sitting Tory, Yarmouth’s Richard Hurlburt ($7,995 for that generator plus $3,078 for the purchase and installation of a 40-inch LCD television).
After losing the government to the NDP and Official Opposition status to the Liberals last June, the third-place Tories found some comfort in the October byelections. They lost Antigonish as expected but managed to hold Inverness against a determined Liberal challenge. The Liberals remain one up on them in the legislature but Liberal Leader Stephen McNeil hasn’t set the province on fire, and come October the Tories will have a new (or at least newly confirmed) leader of their own.
Therein lies the party’s toughest question as it plots recovery. Does it go back to its rural roots as Cape Breton West MLA Alfie MacLeod advises and try to win shore up its base or does it set its sights on urban ridings? This urban-rural tension was there in the last leadership race, won by the future fiddling premier, Mabou’s Rodney MacDonald, and it promises to be a dominant dynamic again.
Though no one has announced for the job, it’s widely speculated that the list is likely to include current interim Leader Karen Casey; Credit Union Atlantic president Jamie Baillie, a former chief of staff to the premier when John Hamm held that post; former cabinet minister Chris d’Entremont, one of nine surviving Tory MLAs; and retired insurance executive Bill Black, who lost the leadership race to MacDonald in 2006.
Among the best reasons for Tory optimism is that formidable candidates will likely vie to lead them out of the basement. This is not a job that nobody wants.