CANADA

Home stretch in a three-way race

CHRIS WOOD September 5 1988
CANADA

Home stretch in a three-way race

CHRIS WOOD September 5 1988

Home stretch in a three-way race

CANADA

The Halifax waterfront was lined with souvenir sellers, hotdog vendors and holidaymakers. And there were jugglers competing with other performers last week for the tourists’ attention. One athletic young woman dazzled her audience by keeping three flaming batons aloft as she balanced precariously on a unicycle. Working the crowd nearby, Nova Scotia Premier John Buchanan was having more difficulty juggling issues that threaten to disrupt his campaign for re-election on Sept. 6. Buchanan— seeking a fourth term for his Progressive Conservative government— has been dogged by scandal. Last week, another controversy erupted over an office lease that, his opponents claim, involves a personal friend. Said the 57year-old premier in an uncharacteristically testy response to reporters: “You write what you please. The facts are the facts.”

The dispute centres on the government’s decision last year to lease office space from Buchanan’s former law partner, Halifax businessman Ralph Medjuck. And the reason for the normally affable premier’s testiness is clear. After 10 years at the top of Nova Scotia politics, Buchanan is in the midst of the tightest campaign of his career. In one poll released last week, the Tories were virtually in a dead heat with the opposition Liberals, led by Vince MacLean. On Wednesday, the Atlantic Television Network reported that the Tories had the support of 29.8 per cent of voters, while the Liberals had 28.68 per cent and the New Democrats—led by Alexa McDonough—had 13.97 per cent. With a margin of error of 3.5 per cent, the difference between the leaders was statistically negligible.

That left the three leaders less than two weeks to break the deadlock. And most observers expected the outcome to turn largely on how voters will judge Buchanan’s credibility and how they react to his party’s scandal-ridden last term. The resilient premier emerged from Nova Scotia’s last election with 42 of the 52 seats in the legislature. But by the time this election was called on July 30, the standings— 40 Tories, six Liberals, three New Democrats, two Independents and one vacancy—reflected four years of almost nonstop political embarrassment. Controversy had forced three ministers out of the cabinet—one now sits as an Independent after being first ejected from the legislature and then returned in a byelection. A fourth Tory minister was obliged to apologize pub-

licly for misleading the legislature. A fifth party member left his seat vacant when he was expelled from the house after being convicted of fraud.

But political ethics could prove to be a risky battleground for MacLean. The 43-year-old opposition leader has struggled to shake off a reputation for

excessive partisanship. Making MacLean’s task all the more difficult is a personal style that lacks Buchanan’s easy informality—a critical asset in the largely rural province of 883,000, where many voters expect to know their politicians personally.

The Conservatives had clearly hoped to sidestep the ethics question. Until last week, they had stressed Buchanan’s undiminished personal popularity, the promise of political renewal and the province’s evident prosperity. Campaign slogans promoted “Strong leadership for new ideas” and “The new PCs.” In fact, in one speech Buchanan used the word “new” 40 times in 15 minutes. He also undertook to provide better health care, more spending on education and closer attention to environmental problems, including a $195-million cleanup of polluted Halifax harbor—commitments that closely matched those of the oppo-

sition. At the same time, the Tories claimed credit for a decline in Nova Scotia’s unemployment rate to 8.9 per cent in July from 11.3 per cent four years ago. In the Halifax area, where new construction and a lively night life testify to the robust economy, inflation has subsided to 3.9 per

cent from 4.3 per cent in 1984.

But to many Nova Scotians, the issues surrounding the 1987 lease of the Joseph Howe Building—a modern glass and granite structure across the street from the province’s Georgian sandstone legislature—seemed more reflective of the Conservatives’ past four years in power. The building has contained a variety of government offices since it was completed in 1974. But last year, after failing to renegotiate leases with the province, the building’s owner, Toronto-based Confederation Life, sold the structure to Medjuck for an undisclosed price.

Twelve days before the sale was completed, the government signed an agreement with a company owned by Medjuck to lease space that it occupied in the building for 25 years at a cost of $63 million. The agreement was revealed in April by Liberal MLA Guy Brown. But last week, Brown released

further details about the lease, including terms that he claimed would provide Medjuck with a $12-million profit over the lifetime of the lease. Charged Brown: “It was a special deal for a very special friend of the premier.” Buchanan promptly dismissed Brown’s allegations. “It is a normal lease,” he told reporters. However, a lawyer who reviewed the document for Maclean's said that several clauses in the lease, including requirements for the province to pay for future improvements, were “very unusual.”

For his part, Government Services Minister George Moody said that the province wanted to buy the property outright but that Medjuck had agreed only to a lease —including the contested clauses — which gives the province an option to purchase.

Declared Moody: “That is the only way he would let it go.”

Still, the disagreement revived memories of earlier controversies.

In 1986, former minister of culture and recreation Billy Joe MacLean (no relation to the opposition leader) was convicted of submitting fraudulent expense accounts to the province.

The following year, another Cape Breton Tory,

Gregory Maclsaac, was convicted of similar charges. The prosecutions were delayed for months while Conservative Attorney General Ronald Giffen and, after a midterm cabinet shuffle, his successor Terry Donahoe, insisted that there were no grounds for charges.

Earlier this year, another member of Buchanan’s front bench, Halifax MLA Edmund Morris, resigned as minister of advanced training and higher education after he was convicted of breaching the provincial Freedom of Information Act. Morris, in his previous position as minister of social services, had released facts to the news media from the confidential file of a welfare mother who criticized his department.

Until last week, the Liberals had avoided confronting the ethics issue. One reason, said Liberal campaign manager Gerald McConnell, was that pre-election polling showed that voters would be more receptive to a positive campaign. MacLean’s own vulnerability on the issue has also deterred the

Liberals from taking the offensive. MacLean has a reputation—both inside and outside his party—as an unforgiving and occasionally vengeful partisan.

By last week, there were signs that the ethics issue had shaken Buchanan’s customary calm. Political analysts were taken by surprise when the Tory leader released a policy statement on Aug. 21 in which he instituted measures—including more independence for prosecutors and public tendering of office

leases—to reduce political interference in government. Said the premier: “There have been incidents in my government which all of us view as unfortunate. We all learn from our mistakes.”

As the campaign entered its last full week, the outcome was too close to call. Almost one-quarter of Nova Scotia voters remained undecided. For them, the campaign’s only face-to-face confrontation among the three leaders—a televised debate to be held on Sept. 3—offered a last opportunity to consider the choices. Three days later, the difficult juggling act of competing considerations—the weighing of Buchanan’s genial personality against his government’s record, of MacLean’s less amiable image against the promise of change, of McDonough’s strong social message against her party’s tiny caucuswill come to an end at the ballot box.

CHRIS WOOD in Halifax