Canada

Life away from the court

RAE CORELI February 16 1998
Canada

Life away from the court

RAE CORELI February 16 1998

Strategic moves

Election fever is running high in Nova Scotia

BRIAN BERGMAN

As a devotee of tae kwon do, Nova Scotia Premier Russell MacLellan has learned to be both patient and cunning. The Korean martial art, in which MacLellan holds a black belt, teaches adherents to wait out their opponents, striking only when they are most vulnerable. Since his victory in a bitterly contested Liberal leadership convention in July, it appears that MacLellan has applied some of the sport’s lessons to his life in politics. Resisting the temptation to call a snap election to take advantage of a post-convention “bounce,” MacLellan opted instead to stretch the Liberals’ mandate into its fifth and final year. The aim was to establish a track record of his own—and to rob the opposition parties of their most potent ammunition by undoing many of the unpopular policies of his predecessor, John Savage. The strategy worked: the latest public opinion polls show the Liberals, who seemed destined for defeat, as the clear favorites to win the election that will be called in a matter of weeks, if not days. “I think the momentum has shifted,” MacLellan told Maclean’s. “Our message appears to be getting through.”

And what exactly is that message? Like other leaders who have taken over battered administrations, MacLellan is promising voters that he will be more open and responsive to their concerns than might have been the case in the recent past. But according to MacLellan’s chief political foes, he is also cynically attempting to make Nova Scotians forget the legacy of the Savage years, which included a series of painful spending cuts to the province’s healthcare and education systems in an ultimately successful bid to eliminate the $471-million deficit the Liberals inherited from the Conservatives in 1993. “The Liberals are engaged in a long, elaborate and expensive campaign to inflict a sense of amnesia onto Nova Scotians that the past Alh years haven’t happened,” says NDP Leader Robert Chisholm, whose party has also enjoyed a recent surge in support. Concurs Conservative Leader John Hamm, with a hint of exasperation in his voice: “MacLellan himself has become the opposition. He has been undoing the things we had spoken out against over the last four years.”

The premier, who has exhibited political wiles that were not readily apparent during a previous 18-year stint as a backbench Liberal MP from Cape Breton, makes no secret of his intentions. “You can’t tell voters what to judge you on,” he says, “but we hope that we’ll be judged mainly on what we’ve done since July 12th”—the day he won the Liberal leadership. Nor does he make any apologies for distancing himself from Savage, who quickly fell out of public favor after leading his party to an impressive victory in 1993 (the Liberals hold 39 seats in the legislature, compared with nine for the Tories and four for the NDP). “If we hadn’t reviewed these things,” says MacLellan, “then voters would say, ‘OK, fine, we’ll vote for someone who will.’ ” The Liberals’ political makeover began just two days after MacLellan defeated Savage’s former finance minister, Bernie Boudreau, and two other leadership contenders to become Nova Scotia’s 24th premier. During the leadership race, MacLellan sharply criticized a deal negotiated by the Savage government that granted neighboring New Brunswick a generous price discount on the natural gas that is expected to flow from the Sable Island gas reserves off Nova Scotia’s east ^ 9 coast by 1999. On July 14, fresh from his victory, MacLellan appeared at the final day &?§A of National Energy Board hearings into the

$3-billion gas project to reveal that his government was reneging on the three-week-old deal, and to demand instead that Nova Scotians, because of their proximity to the gas, receive a 20-per-cent price advantage over New Brunswick gas users—more than double what the original agreement called for.

At the time, New Brunswick officials said MacLellan was simply grandstanding, and that his intervention had come too late to make any real difference. They were proven right: when the energy board gave its blessing to the gas project in late October, it ruled that the deal negotiated by the Savage government stood. But MacLellan had already scored a publicity coup, garnering lavish media coverage that lent the impression of a new leader boldly standing up for his province’s interests. And in the intervening months, MacLellan personally oversaw negotiations aimed at wringing new concessions from the oil consortiums behind the project. Among other things, the companies agreed to set up a $20-million fund to provide further rebates to Nova Scotia consumers. While the changes fell short of what MacLellan had promised as a leadership candidate, they were announced with much fanfare—and once again, the premier won the image sweepstakes. The front page of the next day’s Chronicle Herald, the province’s largest newspaper, featured a beaming MacLellan surrounded by applauding Liberal MLAs over the headline, “N.S. pumps up Sable deal.” Ironically enough, MacLellan has benefited from the balanced budget bequeathed to him by Savage to start pumping money back into health care and education—two areas hardest hit by Savage-era spending cuts. At the same time—and with varying degrees of success—MacLellan has taken on other unpopular aspects of the Savage record. As a leadership candidate, he had vowed to get rid of the levies on the province’s first toll highway, which opened in December. As premier, he had to settle for a discount that halved the tolls for frequent users from $3 to $1.50. MacLellan delighted environmentalists by reversing the Savage government’s decision to allow mining exploration in a sensitive Cape Breton bog known as the Jim Campbells Barren. But he also provoked a lawsuit by Toronto-based Regal Goldfields Ltd., which is seeking to have the area reopened to mining or, failing that, to be compensated for lost income.

There are other thorny challenges ahead. Along-standing promise to give lowincome Nova Scotians a tax break on their home-heating bills remained, as of last week, unfulfilled. MacLellan’s government is also in the midst of sensitive contract negotiations involving more than 50,000 public sector employees. Coming off a threeyear wage freeze imposed by the Savage Liberals, workers are seeking hefty pay hikes. Both the contract talks and the proposed tax break could prove costly for a government that is nursing a slim $1.1-million budget surplus for the 1997-1998 fiscal year. Handled badly, they could also alienate key segments of the voting public.

For the time being, though, Nova Scotians appear ready to give the revamped Liberals a second chance in the provincial election that must be held no later than May. The latest poll, released by Halifaxbased Corporate Research Associates in early December, showed the Liberals with 40-per-cent support among decided voters, compared with 31 per cent for the NDP and 19 per cent for the Tories. That reflects a dramatic rebound in Liberal fortunes since last May, when the party registered only 26-per-cent support, trailing the NDP at 33 per cent and the Tories at 28 per cent. Acadia University political scientist Agar Adamson says voters seem to be embracing MacLellan even when he fails to deliver on some of his promises. “I think people are giving him marks for trying,” observes Adamson, “rather than criticizing him for not always succeeding.”

Part of that may have to do with MacLellan’s leadership style. The 58-year-old Cape Bretoner has an affable, folksy manner— again, much in contrast to Savage, who struck many voters as aloof or even arrogant. For MacLellan, who has been too busy of late to practice his beloved tae kwon do, those attributes will come in handy as he prepares for the fight of his life. □