As the debate began, Premier Donald Cameron’s grim expression in the Nova Scotia legislature reflected his government’s precarious position. Both the opposition Liberals and the New Democrats were striving to topple his Conservative government in a vote on a motion of nonconfidence following the presentation of an austere provincial budget earlier last week by Finance Minister Gregory Kerr. And with his Tories holding a slim, one-seat majority, the premier’s concern extended beyond the opposition benches. A number of disgruntled Tories had also publicly criticized the $4.7-billion budget—leading to speculation that they would vote against the government. But in the end, the Conservatives escaped the critical test of their legislative support when Speaker Ronald Russell, also a Conservative MLA, ruled the nonconfidence motion inadmissible. Cameron reacted to the turn of events with bravado. “They ran around bragging that they were going to defeat us, so I was anxious to have the vote,” he said. “It would show there’s more puff to these people than anything else.”
For others, the ruling gave rise to anger rather than regret. In the House, Liberal Leader Vincent MacLean engaged in a heated exchange with Russell over the Speaker’s decision. Russell had ruled that because the Liberal motion of nonconfidence had come in the middle of the
budget debate, rather than at the end, as is customary, it was contrary to legislative procedure. But MacLean accused Russell of playing partisan politics. “You have effectively, sir, acted on behalf of the government,” he said. Snapped Russell in reply: “Withdraw that remark.” Acknowledging that his statement contravened parliamentary protocol, the Liberal leader shot back: “Unfortunately, I have to. But your honor has stifled the opposition.”
In fact, MacLean said that it will be at least a month before the opposition has a chance to defeat the government on a nonconfidence motion. Until then, Cameron, who won the Tory leadership in February, will continue to walk a political tightrope. His party holds only 26 seats in the 52-seat legislature—including that of Russell, who votes only in the event of a tie. Arrayed against the government are 22 Liberals and two New Democrats, while renegade Tory Roland Thornhill sits as an Independent. The government’s slim hold on power will be tested on Aug. 27 when a byelection in the riding of Halifax/Atlantic will fill the seat of former premier John Buchanan, who accepted a Senate appointment last September and is at the centre of controversies over patronage and secret payments from the Tory party and a private trust fund.
Further complicating Cameron’s calculations is the uncertain allegiance of Thornhill, a
former deputy premier. The portly former mayor of Dartmouth resigned from the caucus last February shortly after finishing a close second in the party’s leadership race—and after being charged with 17 counts of fraud, forgery and receiving illegal benefits. Thornhill strongly criticized the budget, as did disgruntled Conservative MLA Colin Stewart—who was excluded from Cameron’s cabinet. Last week, their loyalty to Cameron’s government remained untested, leading analysts to question the Tories’ hold on power. Noted Brian Crowley, a political scientist at Halifax’s Dalhousie University: “This government could be brought down by something as minor as an unforeseen absence during an important vote.”
Such a vote would force the Tories to enter an election campaign from a position well behind the rival Liberals in opinion polls. In the most recently published poll, conducted before the budget and released last week by Halifaxbased Corporate Research Associates Ltd., 38 per cent of decided voters said that they would support MacLean’s Liberals in an election, compared with 29 per cent for the Tories. Another 25 per cent picked the NDP. According to most analysts, the low Tory standing is due in large part to the scandals revolving around the former Buchanan government.
But Cameron's attempts to shake off Buchanan’s legacy are plainly having an effect. In one gesture earlier this month, his government tabled a bill to force provincial politicians to disclose all sources of personal income. And last week’s poll, while still favoring the Liberals, showed that the Conservatives had escaped from the third-place ranking that they occupied when Cameron assumed the leadership in February.
As well, last week’s budget was clearly less painful than many Nova Scotians had feared. Kerr introduced no new taxes—while allowing spending to increase by a slight 4.3 per cent. Despite that, some Nova Scotians reacted angrily to the document. Unions representing the province’s 40,000 government employees promised mass protests against a plan by Kerr to freeze public-sector wages for two years. But, said Dalhousie political scientist Andrew Heard, “This is a budget which offended few people—and one on which the government could comfortably run an election campaign.”
In fact, the Tories are not legally required to call an election until 1993. Some party insiders, however, are urging Cameron to go to the polls as early as this summer to capitalize on his rising popularity—and to pre-empt the possibility of further embarrassments arising from either the RCMP investigation or the charges against Thornhill. Other Tories say that Cameron needs more time to distance himself from the Buchanan legacy. For his part, Cameron appears intent on continuing with his legislative agenda. “The kinds of reforms I speak of are important for Nova Scotians,” he told Maclean’s. “That is what we will spend our time and effort on.” It will be a difficult act for a man walking the political high wire.
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