McNeil: soft-spo­ken fis­cal hawk

‘I didn’t train to be the premier. I was out work­ing. I made my liv­ing car­ry­ing a tool box.’

Cape Breton Post - - Cape Breton/ Province -

Stephen McNeil is a soft­spo­ken man with a lower-reg­is­ter voice and a some­what im­pos­ing six-foot-five frame. He doesn’t al­ways ex­ude warmth on TV and he un­der­stands that.

“Some might see me as a bit stiff and not as jovial as I re­ally am,’’ said the 52-year-old Lib­eral premier. “For most Nova Sco­tians, that’s how they know me, through the tele­vi­sion screen.’’

David John­son, a po­lit­i­cal sci­ence pro­fes­sor at Cape Bre­ton Univer­sity, said that is McNeil’s big­gest chal­lenge as he seeks a sec­ond straight ma­jor­ity in the May 30 elec­tion: his image, as con­veyed through the main­stream me­dia.

“I’ve al­ways sensed that for a Nova Sco­tia premier to do well, they need to be seen as avun­cu­lar — ev­ery­one’s favourite un­cle,’’ John­son said. “If there’s an Achilles heel for Stephen McNeil ... it’s that he comes off as be­ing rather cold and aloof, and a bit con­de­scend­ing at times — some would say ar­ro­gant. If I was a cam­paign man­ager, I’d be telling him, ‘Be warmer, but more avun­cu­lar.’”

In an in­ter­view with The Cana­dian Press in his sev­enth-floor of­fice over­look­ing Hal­i­fax har­bour, a more easy­go­ing man­ner emerges as McNeil talks about grow­ing up in the An­napo­lis Val­ley, the 12th of 17 chil­dren.

He points to trea­sured items, in­clud­ing signed photos of NHL greats Sid­ney Crosby and Bobby Orr. Above those pic­tures are col­lages show­ing a jum­ble of photos of his two chil­dren when they were young. Colleen is now 27 and Jef­frey is 25.

On another wall, there’s a pic­ture of the 13th hole at the Au­gusta Na­tional Golf Club in Ge­or­gia, where he and his son trav­elled to watch the 2010 Masters Tour­na­ment. The premier says he’s not much of a golfer, but his son is ac­com­plished at the sport.

On a shelf fac­ing his desk, there’s a sin­gle, black-and-white photo of his fa­ther Burt, who choked to death while eat­ing Sun­day din­ner when McNeil was eight years old.

McNeil re­calls how he and 13 other sib­lings were ush­ered out of the house that day, the youngest only 18 months old.

“There’s a big gap in peo­ple’s lives when some­thing like that hap­pens,’’ he said, re­call­ing how his mother Theresa sud­denly faced the daunt­ing task of rais­ing so many young chil­dren on her own. “She had no driver’s li­cence and hadn’t worked out­side the house ... The next morn­ing, she woke up and said, ‘We’re it.’ We were all look­ing at her.’’

She would later work in a fac­tory be­fore be­com­ing Canada’s first fe­male high sher­iff, which made her re­spon­si­ble for court se­cu­rity in An­napo­lis County.

McNeil stud­ied re­frig­er­a­tion re­pair in Dart­mouth be­fore open­ing his own ap­pli­ance re­pair shop in Bridgetown, east of the fam­ily home in Granville Ferry. He ran the busi­ness for 15 years be­fore win­ning his first provin­cial elec­tion bid in 2003.

“I didn’t train to be the premier,’’ he said. “I was out work­ing. I made my liv­ing car­ry­ing a tool box.’’

McNeil is a self-de­scribed fis­cal con­ser­va­tive who has made it his mis­sion to bal­ance the province’s books.

Through­out his first term, the premier has taken aim at pub­lic sec­tor unions, say­ing mem­bers’ wages have in­creased 11.5 per cent over the past seven years, well above the in­creases seen in the pri­vate sec­tor.

“Most Nova Sco­tians who aren’t in the pub­lic sec­tor would have liked to have that over the last seven years,’’ he said. “(But) we didn’t re­move any­thing. We just said, ‘Let’s just slow down and let the econ­omy catch up.’”

Last Fe­bru­ary, McNeil’s gov­ern­ment im­posed a con­tract on 9,400 pub­lic school teach­ers, end­ing a two-month work-to-rule cam­paign.

In April 2014, the gov­ern­ment forced 2,400 strik­ing nurses back to work by in­tro­duc­ing leg­is­la­tion that re­quires all health­sec­tor unions to draft es­sen­tial ser­vices agree­ments be­fore any job ac­tion can oc­cur.

It has made him some en­e­mies, and harshened his pub­lic image, and both op­po­si­tion par­ties have built much of their cam­paigns around that.

The premier said he got a whiff of what was com­ing on April 19 when Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tive Leader Jamie Bail­lie took what McNeil felt was a per­sonal shot at him.

“His style of lead­er­ship, which has been to di­vide peo­ple, which has been to keep peo­ple down — like nurses and teach­ers who want to make the sys­tem bet­ter — is not get­ting us where we need to be,’’ Bail­lie told CBC.

A few days later, NDP Leader Gary Bur­rill de­scribed McNeil as “morally de­fi­cient.’’

McNeil said he ex­pects the cam­paign will be nasty.

“I’m bruised up enough now that I can deal with all that stuff,’’ McNeil said. “But I worry about the slope we’re on.’’

In par­tic­u­lar, he said the rise of so­cial me­dia has led to a de­base­ment of po­lit­i­cal dis­course, where rea­soned de­bate has been re­placed by taunts that re­ver­ber­ate through the In­ter­net’s echo cham­bers.

McNeil noted a re­cent on­line post from one of his own con­stituents re­ferred to him as a lat­ter-day Hitler.

“There are peo­ple, that’s all they do. They sit there and it’s their av­enue to say what­ever they want to say with­out ever hav­ing to be held ac­count­able for it ... And it’s be­com­ing part of cam­paigns.’’

An opin­ion poll in March sug­gested voter sup­port for the Lib­er­als had de­clined sharply since the pre­vi­ous quar­ter, but the num­bers still pointed to­ward another ma­jor­ity win for the gov­ern­ing party.

De­cided voter sup­port for the Lib­eral party dropped from 56 per cent to 44 per cent, ac­cord­ing to a sur­vey of 1,210 adults con­ducted by Hal­i­fax-based Cor­po­rate Re­search As­so­ci­ates Inc. The Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tives stood at 28 per cent, up eight points, and the New Democrats were at 23 per cent, up from 19 per cent, while five per cent sup­ported the Green Party.

McNeil said he wasn’t con­cerned about his party’s dip in the poll, which had a mar­gin of er­ror of plus or mi­nus 2.8 per­cent­age points.

He said the poll shows most Nova Sco­tians un­der­stand the tough de­ci­sions were for the right rea­sons.

“There isn’t a four-year premier in Canada that wouldn’t take those num­bers,’’ he said.


Nova Sco­tia Premier Stephen McNeil ar­rives for an in­fra­struc­ture an­nounce­ment as he cam­paigns in Hal­i­fax on Mon­day. The provin­cial elec­tion will be held Tues­day, May 30.

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