CANADA

The ‘Bacon bits’ show

Nova Scotia’s Tories want some respect

GLEN ALLEN October 22 1990
CANADA

The ‘Bacon bits’ show

Nova Scotia’s Tories want some respect

GLEN ALLEN October 22 1990

The ‘Bacon bits’ show

CANADA

Nova Scotia’s Tories want some respect

In a province where political developments have been closer to low farce than high statesmanship in recent months, the governing party was clearly intent on putting an end to any further frivolity. Last week, Nova Scotia Conservatives, organizing a leadership convention to elect a successor to former premier John Buchanan, who was appointed to the Senate last month, outlined several new rules for the leadership race. Among them: each candidate must provide a $10,000 deposit and written endorsements from registered Tories in one-fifth of the province’s constituencies. The new requirements, said rules committee chairman John MacPherson, would encourage a “serious” leadership race and keep marginal candidates, “such as the president of the Flat Earth Society,” safely on the sidelines. Declared MacPherson: “We are not engaged in entertainment.”

But after 12 years of governing the region’s most populous province, Nova Scotia’s Conservatives have found themselves increasingly the object of public titillation and even ridicule. For one thing, the only candidate who, by the end of last week, had declared his desire for Buchanan’s old job was former civil servant Michael Zareski. Zareski, 41, an avowed believer in reincarnation has said that he may have been a 13th-century saint in a former life. It was Zareski, as well, who sparked an RCMP investigation of the Buchanan government over alleged patronage, including the purchase of $52,700 worth of automatic toilet-seat-cover dispensers, apparently from a friend of Buchanan’s. The dispensers were never used. In another unexpected development, Buchanan’s popular wife, Mavis, has said that she may contest her husband’s vacated Halifax riding when a byelection is called.

Meanwhile, caretaker Premier Roger Bacon has distinguished himself so far by mangled pronouncements that leave his listeners more bemused than enlightened. Said Halifax Daily News columnist Arnie Patterson: “We are becoming pretty dogpatchy down here in Nova Scotia. The images we are sending across the country are not favorable.” Added Patterson, a Liberal who once served as press secretary to former prime minister Pierre Trudeau: “The Tories will have to elect Harry Houdini if they are to survive.”

Underlying that image problem is the collapse of the governing Tories in recent public opinion polls. According to the latest survey, the Conservative government has the support of only 13 per cent of Nova Scotians—indicating that it is even less popular than the federal Tories. The party’s stubbornly low standing in public esteem sustained a further blow on June

13, when Zareski, a former deputy minister of government services, told a legislature committee details of what he said was a widespread Conservative patronage network involving highly placed friends of Buchanan’s. The

RCMP’s subsequent decision to open a formal investigation into his accusations cast a lingering cloud over Buchanan’s Sept. 12 appointment to the Senate—and angered many provincial Tories. Despite that, Zareski claims that his entry into the Conservative leadership race enjoys good prospects for success. Declared Zareski: “I have a wide range of support among Nova Scotians.”

At the same time, actions on another legal front threaten to drag out the political damage from Zareski’s patronage allegations. Last week, lawyer Ronald Pugsley appeared in provincial court in Halifax on behalf of David Nantes, a 45-year-old engineer and Nova Scotia’s former health minister, to face two charges that Nantes illegally released confidential medical information about Zareski. The charges stem from statements that Nantes

made during and following Zareski’s June appearance before the Nova Scotia legislature’s public accounts committee. During the hearings, Nantes appeared to question the former deputy minister’s emotional stability and mental health when he revealed that the Nova Scotia government had referred Zareski to an Ontario psychiatric facility for evaluation. Nantes also claimed that Zareski had left the facility without permission.

Nantes later said much the same thing outside the meeting—where his remarks were no longer protected by parliamentary privilege. For his part, Zareski later released documents showing that he was given a clean bill of health

at the Ontario centre. But, on Sept. 25, after Halifax police charged him with one count of violating the Freedom of Information Act and another of violating the Health Services and Insurance Act, Nantes, once considered a possible successor to Buchanan, resigned from the provincial cabinet. Pugsley indicated that the former minister will plead not guilty to both charges at his next court appearance on Nov. 2.

Meanwhile, Bacon, 64, has been largely unable to restore order or a sense of purpose to the government. A former successful dairy farmer and an effective minister of agriculture in the Buchanan government, Bacon has also frequently been the butt of jokes for his twisted phrasing—which observers in the provincial legislature term “Bacon bits.” He has called life a “three-way street,” and once summed up the problem of unemployment by noting, “If

those people weren’t unemployed, they’d be working today.” Then, in the wake of Buchanan’s surprise resignation as premier, Bacon told a national TV audience, “We was all shocked.” Days later, he told a reporter that his question should be asked of the premier, until another journalist reminded him, “But you are the premier.” Addressing an international meeting of tugboat operators in Halifax last month, Bacon welcomed the visitors who had come, he said, “from all the countries across Canada.”

But Bacon has been clear on one point: he will not be a candidate at the February leadership convention. That convention will choose a

new Conservative leader, who will be Nova Scotia’s premier until the next election— which does not have to be called until September, 1993. To date, Zareski is the only declared candidate. But, said party president Irene Swindells, “There are a lot of people out there feeling the ground.” Indeed, among the potential contenders are Attorney General Thomas Mclnnis, Tourism Minister Roland Thornhill, Management Board chairman Terence Donahoe, Industry Minister Donald Cameron, Small Business Development Minister Kenneth Streatch and backbencher Derrick Kimballand, a Wolfville lawyer. Possible candidates from outside government include Nova Scotia Power Corp. president and former federal MP Louis Comeau, Halifax lawyer George Cooper and

Truro businessman Thomas Stanfield, nephew of former federal Tory leader Robert Stanfield.

Whoever inherits Buchanan’s job will take over a party that currently holds 27 of the legislature’s 52 seats—there are 22 Liberals and two New Democrats, with Buchanan’s suburban Halifax seat vacant. But it is far from clear that Buchanan’s successor will keep the position for long: scholars and party insiders say that the Conservatives will have difficulty winning back voter confidence. Says Ian Stewart, a political scientist at Wolfville’s Acadia University: “There are few things in politics more dangerous than being the object of ridicule.” Added historian Tony MacKenzie, of St.

Francis Xavier University at Antigonish: “It has been an embarrassment. You can’t get much lower than toilet seats.”

That verdict is echoed by some voters. “We need a new direction,” said Christine Heggelin, a nurse from Herring Cove, a community just outside Halifax. “And it wouldn’t matter if it were Liberal or NDP.” Added Stuart Ritcey, a 54-year-old oil-refinery foreman from Dartmouth: “I’ve never voted anything but Conservative in my life and neither have my parents. And now I’m strongly thinking of voting NDP. A lot of people I talk to are feeling that way.” Still, some longtime Conservative supporters believe that the party’s fortunes can be turned around. Swindells, for one, said that the coming months will be a time of “renewal,

openness and reform. This is a great time to get our message out.” Added Beverly Mac Adam, 21-year-old leader of the province’s 500member Progressive Conservative youth organization: “I don’t think anything can stick to anyone forever. A new leader will sweep the dust away.” Others think it may not be that easy. Said Joseph Stewart, a New Glasgow businessman who has been a Tory organizer for 40 years: “If the new leader doesn’t make some big changes, we won’t be in power long.”

And last week, the government’s long season of scandal seemed certain to extend into the fall when opposition MLAs revealed that Halifax lawyer Cherry Ferguson, a Tory loyalist who earns $63,000 a year from two government positions, as deputy clerk of the legislature and chief electoral officer, had also billed the province more than $600,000 for other legal services over the past two years.

Meanwhile, Nova Scotia’s opposition parties are clearly sensing opportunity in the wind. Alexa McDonough’s New Democrats, buoyed by the surprise NDP victory in the Sept. 6 Ontario election, have redoubled their attacks on the Tories. The Liberals, out of power since 1978, have also turned up the heat. Last week, many Nova Scotians found copies of a statement by Liberal Leader Vincent MacLean on their doorsteps. The statement declared that “skeptical, cynical” Nova Scotian voters had been offended by being “portrayed as living in a political backwater,” and that the “trust they placed in government has been betrayed.” Added MacLean: “Today, there is a demand for an open, accountable government. May that demand never wane.”

But it proved to be an ill-timed salvo. MacLean became the focus of controversy himself last week when Tory and NDP MLAs publicly criticized a trust fund that the party established in 1957 to subsidize the income of its leaders. The fund pays MacLean $46,800 a year on top of the annual $82,000 compensation he receives as opposition leader. With the premier’s job paying about $92,000, the extra income makes MacLean Nova Scotia’s highest-paid provincial politician. Last week, however, as the Tories took comfort in the controversy, MacLean defended the fund on the grounds that some of his responsibilities are partisan— and should not be paid for with taxpayer’s money. “If I attend purely Liberal functions, that should be the responsibility of the Liberal party,” he said.

Although MacLean seemed likely to avoid any lasting political damage from the trust fund, it was another indication of the volatility of Nova Scotia politics. In fact, some experts said that nothing can be taken for granted— not even the apparent demise of the Tories. “Governments have changed horses in midstream and gone on to be re-elected,” declared Acadia’s Stewart. But as Nova Scotia’s tarnished Conservatives prepare for the arduous task of choosing a new leader, it is clear that the horse will have to be strong—and its rider stronger still.

GLEN ALLEN in Halifax