Canada

A Tory tortoise plods to victory

John Hamm comes from behind to lead his Nova Scotia Conservatives to a majority government

John DeMont August 9 1999
Canada

A Tory tortoise plods to victory

John Hamm comes from behind to lead his Nova Scotia Conservatives to a majority government

John DeMont August 9 1999

A Tory tortoise plods to victory

Canada

John DeMont

Angel’s Roost is a small, elite residence for graduate students at tiny tradition-bound University of King’s College in Halifax. Sharing those rooms back in 1961 were two young Nova Scotians whose lives and careers were destined to intersect in a major way: a law student from Sydney named Russell MacLellan and John Hamm, then in medical school, who grew up in the farming and mining town of New Glasgow. Anyone who remembers them back then says they were a study in contrasts: MacLellan, an earnest doctor’s son who directed campus theatrical productions; Hamm, two years older, an athlete-scholar with an infectious, booming laugh who used to drive around Halifax in a white Triumph convertible. But they still participated in sports and invariably found themselves part of the same late-night sessions that moved from room to room. “There was a bond that was created there,” Hamm, now 61, recalled last week. “Russell was a friend. We’ve always had a good relationship.”

Up to a point. Hamm’s startling elec-

tion upset last week may well have consigned his old pal and leader of the province’s Liberals to the political junk heap. The premier-elect, after all, was seen to be committing political suicide when he and his Conservatives voted against the MacLellan government’s budget last month, triggering an unwanted summer election with the party a distant third in the polls. Instead, the Tories waltzed home with 29 seats, leaving the New Democrats—down to 12 seats from 19—wondering where their support went on voting day, and MacLellan, his caucus reduced to 11 from 19, pondering his future.

It was a campaign that began slowly, with elevated talk of issues and principles, but later produced a televised debate that degenerated into a shouting match, leaked criminal records, nasty attack ads and naked attempts to play one region of the province off against the other. By the end, the race seemed better suited to bare-knuckle brawlers than a white-haired skim-milkdrinking country doctor whose lanky looks and aw-shucks manner evoke Jimmy Stewart in Mister Smith Goes to Washington. “He is not slick, he is not

political,” explains Thérèse Arseneau, a political scientist at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax. “But John Hamm resonated with people on this campaign.” So did his platform. The party’s private focus groups said voters wanted to see a campaign featuring specifics rather than vague pledges. So, just days after the writ was dropped, Hamm released his Plan for Nova Scotia: 243 promises spanning everything from balancing the budget and cutting taxes within four years to shutting down money-losing Sydney Steel Corp. In contrast, MacLellan was busy defending his failed budget while Robert Chisholm, the photogenic NDP leader, dodged and weaved without making specific commitments. During the leader’s debate, Chisholm and MacLellan went on the attack; Hamm, trying to focus on substance, sometimes appeared old and off balance.

The polls, though, showed his plodding, awkward style was striking a chord: after the June 14 debate, the Grits had slipped to third place, leaving the other two parties to fight it out for the lead. And Conservative strategists had always welcomed a head-to-head between Chisholm and Hamm. The reason: they felt their leader seemed a nice, safe alternative for voters who were weary of the Liberals, but wary of the prospect of an NDP premier—particularly one who had lied to a reporter to obscure a drunk-driving conviction he had at the age of 19. “With the exception of one or two small glitches,” explained one key Tory campaign strategist, “we stayed with our plan and it went off just the way we hoped.” Earning people’s trust is something that comes easy for the new premier. In Pictou County, which was settled by highland Scots some 225 years ago, he is still Doctor Hamm, the man who spearheaded a campaign to raise $7 million for the local hospital. Now a resident of Stellarton, Hamm has been a pillar of the local Anglican Church and a star half-miler at the local Highland Games who later took over the co-management

John Hamm comes from behind to lead his Nova Scotia Conservatives to a majority government

of New Glasgows senior hockey team. “What you see is what you get with John,” says Bill MacNeil, a local theme-park owner who has known Hamm since grade school. “There is no guile.”

No flash either. Hamms idea of decadence is pouring himself a big lime rickey and sitting down on Saturday night to watch his beloved Montreal Canadiens on television. Cars have always been his one excess—he once owned a cherry-red 1947 Ferrari as well as a convertible Corvette and a vintage Mercedes—but nowadays he seems content to drive a half-ton pickup and a North American sedan. He and his wife, Genesta, live in a pleasant brick house among the other local doctors, lawyers and Sobey’s Inc. executives who make up Stellarton’s upper crust (their three children are fullgrown). He is known as an unpretentious guy who likes to jog and craft furniture in his garage, but who works too hard to take

vacations or visit the small salmon-fishing lodge he owns with a couple of friends on the St. Marys River.

Timing has been everything in his political career. Hamm grew up in aToryvoting household on New Glasgows west side. But he had never given a thought to running for office before then-Premier Donald Cameron asked him in 1992 to consider going for the Pictou Centre nomination. At that point, Hamm was looking for a change—and a new way to make a contribution to society—after more than 30 years of practising medicine. “I believed in the things he talked about, like fiscal responsibility and making government more open to the people,” he recalls of Cameron. “But I said to him, ‘I don’t know if I can be a politician. I’ll run, but this is not a long-term commitment—even if I’m successful.’ ”

It was baptism by fire. Unable to distance themselves from the scandal-ridden years of former Conservative premier John Buchanan, Cameron’s Tories lost all but nine of their 26 seats as John Savage’s Liberals swept into power in the May 25,

1993, election. Hamm managed to squeak in by 475 votes. But his experiences in the legislature were grim: the Conservatives were rudderless after Cameron’s resignation, while Hamm himself was in pain and wearing a cervical collar after a neck injury In 1995, the party finally decided to choose a new leader. Hamm questioned whether he had the desire or ability for the job. “If a messiah for our party appeared, I would have been prepared to work with that person,” he now says. “But the messiah did not show up.” So he ran—and ended up victorious.

His quiet approach baffled those caucus members who expected an aggressive leader loudly critical of the government. But during the 1998 provincial election, Hamm’s performance in the leadership debate—he silenced MacLellan for seven long seconds by asking him if he would resign should his party fail to balance the

budget—helped the party to a betterthan-expected showing at the ballot box (MacLellan’s Liberals were relegated to a minority government). Moreover, it was a turning point for Hamm, who now controlled the government’s fate. And in late June, he voted with the New Democrats against the government’s June 1 budget.

One of the new premier’s first steps will be to build bridges with Cape Breton, where the Tories’ stand on closing Sydney Steel has left them with just a single seat. Last week, he was already laying the groundwork for the September budget that will give Nova Scotians the first true measure of their new premier. Hamm considers himself a red Tory—socially progressive, yet fiscally conservative. He knows he will have to make some tough decisions to meet his goal of balancing the books by 2003. “My worst critic is the guy that looks at me every morning when I shave,” he says. “If I can satisfy that critic, that will keep me going.” The words sound corny. But when Canada’s newest—and perhaps most reluctant—premier utters them, they just might be true. EH