CANADA

The return of Billy Joe MacLean

CHRIS WOOD March 9 1987
CANADA

The return of Billy Joe MacLean

CHRIS WOOD March 9 1987

The return of Billy Joe MacLean

It was an occasion for pomp, ceremony and symbols of a fresh start. Members of the Nova Scotia legis

lature and their guests—the women acknowledging tradition by wearing new hats—packed the elegant chamber as Lt.-Gov. Alan Abraham read the speech from the throne. Its clear intent: to give Premier John Buchanan’s nine-year-old Conservative government new momentum before an expected fall election. But the spectacle was overshadowed by the stunning comeback two days earlier of former cabinet minister W. J. (Billy Joe) MacLean, expelled from the legislature last October after he was convicted of fraud. Running as an independent, MacLean regained his seat in a byelection whose outcome may threaten Buchanan’s plan to put a year of political embarrassment behind him.

Still, the durable premier shrugged off MacLean’s victory and focused on the throne speech, which stressed the need to upgrade technology in Nova Scotia’s industries. Coming on the heels of a mini-shuffle of the cabinet last month, the speech sounded much like a campaign manifesto. And it brought a new mood of confidence to the 41 Tories in the 52-seat legislature (the Liberals hold six seats, the NDP three, and MacLean will become the second independent). But Buchanan’s effort to put a fresh face on his government was clearly rocked by the unexpected return of the man at the centre of its worst scandal to date.

MacLean, 50, an affable businessman and former mayor of Port Hawkesbury, N.S., said that the moment was pure “vindication.” Barely four months ago his political career appeared over. Allegations that MacLean, the former minister of culture, had cheated on expense claims led to criminal charges. Then, last Oct. 3, MacLean pleaded guilty to four counts of fraud. On Oct. 30 the legislature adopted the so-called “Billy Joe Bill”— which ejected MacLean from the assembly and forbade him from seeking re-election. But MacLean successfully challenged the measure in the courts, winning the right to seek his old seat back. Last week voters in largely rural Inverness South gave MacLean a narrow 2,203-to-2,038 victory over his nearest rival, Liberal Allan MacDonald. Taunted the irrepressible MacLean: “Hey guys, I’m back!”

MacLean’s shoestring $8,000 campaign relied almost entirely on his local popularity. He even changed his name on the ballot from “W. J. (Billy

Joe) MacLean” to simply “Billy Joe MacLean.” But although MacLean achieved personal vindication, he also hinted broadly that he may be prepared to reveal wrongdoing by other MLAs. “There are some politicians,” he said, “whose seats became in jeopardy tonight.” MacLean, agreed Halifax Liberal John Godfrey, president of the

University of King’s College, was “in a position to create a lot of mischief. He knows a great deal.” At the very least, MacLean is a provocative reminder of a year that the Buchanan government would prefer to for-

get. Among the embarrassments that helped to drive the Tories to a dismal thirdplace standing in midDecember polling: • Ten ministers and senior civil servants were obliged to repay excessive expense claims, and a second Tory MLA, Gregory Maclsaac, was charged with fraud in connection with his expenses. A decision on whether to commit Mac-

lsaac to trial is expected Mar. 13. • Health Minister Ronald Russell was accused of using political influence to find a job for his girlfriend (now his wife). • Former attorney general Ron Giffin was rebuked by Buchanan for suggest-

ing that Nova Scotia might dodge the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to keep homosexuals out of police forces. New poll results released last week, however, offered scant comfort for politicians of any party. A survey commissioned by the Halifax Chronicle-Herald showed that, although Buchanan had the highest personal approval rating of all

party leaders (30 per cent), his Tories were backed by only 19 per cent of voters polled. The Liberals had the support of 26 per cent of voters, but party leader Vince MacLean (no relation to Billy Joe) was rated as the least popular leader.

For many Liberals, that liability was demonstrated last week when MacLean, who also holds a Cape Breton seat, was unable to deliver victory in Inverness South. With no party clearly ahead, the new session took on added significanee. And the controversy involving the newly re-elected member for Inverness South could dominate proceedings once again; Billy Joe

once again; Billy MacLean has yet to agree to repay $22,000 in fraudulently claimed expenses—despite a government promise that a reimbursement plan would be in place by the end of last year.

-CHRIS WOOD in Halifax