The man who has cast the biggest shadow over Nova Scotia’s Liberal leadership race isn’t one of the three candidates whose names will be on the ballot this week. He’s a food-bank worker from the tapped-out mining town of Glace Bay. John Hurley told a television reporter that a worker for Francis MacKenzie offered him $20 and a free Liberal membership to vote for a new leader. Hurley claimed he wasn’t told which candidate to support. But the allegations smacked enough of vote-buying to shake up the race. MacKenzie’s handlers claimed that no one working for them did anything wrong. After grudgingly looking into the allegations, the party brass also said there
had been no improprieties. But by then no one seemed to be listening. And, just like that, a campaign that was meant to be all about ideals and party renewal smelled of old-style political corruption.
Surprise, surprise. For the last 12 years, reform-minded governments have tried to sanitize Nova Scotia’s wild and woolly political culture. And, to be fair, four consecutive administrations have taken big strides to root out patronage, eliminate questionable electioneering and make the province’s political system more accountable. The end result: “The culture is changing,” says Leonard Preyra, a political science professor at Halifax’s Saint Mary’s University. “But in Nova Scotia politics is still a blood sport.”
Old habits do seem to die hard in a province where John Buchanan—the Tory
premier whose excesses ushered in many of the later reforms—once opined that “elections should not be fought on issues.” The Grit vote-buying allegations, which were circulating long before Hurley took them public, certainly underscore that. So does the two-man race now underway to lead the province’s New Democrats, which from the start has been tainted by mudslinging, including an anonymous e-mail to a reporter about interim leader Darrell Dexter’s 2 5-year-old drunk-driving conviction.
Think it’s down-and-dirty now? Back in the late 1700s, the province’s election polls were open for weeks at a time and candidates kept “houses of entertainment” that provided supporters with free lodging, food and booze. Back then, partisan county sheriffs allowed only voters supporting their candidates to cast ballots. And merchants vying for power forced their debtors to support them. “Where elections were fiercely contested,” Halifax historian Brian Cuthbertson has written in his book Johnny Bluenose at the Polls: Epic Nova Scotia Election Battles 17581848, “there could be much fraudulent voting, drunkenness, epic battles to gain possession of the passageways leading up to the hustings, intimidation of voters, and great expense to candidates.”
Make no mistake: Nova Scotia’s politics have mellowed with time. But it’s a longestablished fact that rum, cash or favours can do wonders when it comes to gaining an edge at the voting booth. A storyhanded down through generations of Liberals about the 1935 federal election illustrates how widespread vote-buying was even at that late stage. The federal Liberal candidate had a tailor in tow when he campaigned in the predominately black community of Preston, 30 km east of Halifax. If elected, he promised, the Grits would run a railway line past the community. The tailor was there to measure local men for uniforms as porters—one of the few decent-paying occupations open to black males at that time. When he campaigned for re-election in 1940, the MP returned to Preston. This time voters were promised that the rail line was really going to happen. As proof of the Liberal party’s good faith, the candidate had again brought the tailor along—in case any of the Preston men had put on weight since the last time they were measured.
One prominent modern-day provincial
Tory who spoke to Macleans on condition of anonymity still remembers the first election he worked on, driving through a riding with the candidate in the early 1960s, a stack of $2 bills and a trunk full of bottles of rum to be left with Conservative poll captains. The Grits were no different: a long-time key player in the provincial party who also wished to remain anonymous recalls working for party leader Gerald Regan in the 1970 election that made him premier of Nova Scotia. After the Tories tried to buy votes by dispensing turkeys in the working-class riding of Halifax Needham, Grit operatives left party headquarters with bags of $5 bills for voters. “You can’t buy Nova Scotia voters,” he remembers one of the Grit lieutenants gloating. “You can only lease them.”
That memory certainly rings true for Stephen Kimber, now director of journalism at the University of King’s College in Halifax. As a young radio reporter working the 1970 campaign, he caught Regan’s campaign workers handing out liquor, groceries and perfume along with $5 bills.
Says Kimber: “It would be nice to think this was some kind of isolated case. But I just don’t think so.”
By the late 1980s, little appeared to have really changed. That much became clear in the trial of five Liberal workers who pleaded guilty to buying votes on election day in 1988 with rum and money hidden in a Shelburne funeral home owned by a Grit MLA. What’s noteworthy is the defence argument: that vote-buying was so endemic in Nova Scotia it was unfair to single out a few individuals. It’s “policy all over,” said their lawyer, Irving Pink. It certainly seemed that way in Nova Scotia’s Guysborough County on the other side of the province, where, in the same election, two Tory campaign workers were fined $350 each for delivering loads of gravel to persuade people to vote Conservative.
Those cases came on the tail end of the scandal-ridden John Buchanan years. Characterized by widespread allegations of political patronage and chicanery, that time marked a watershed for the province. “Nova Scotians have been politically sensitized ever since,” says James Bickerton, a
political science professor at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish. “Nobody wanted to return to the patronage and corruption of the Buchanan era.” Even then, reforming the system hasn’t been easy. Liberal premier John Savage faced open revolt within his own party, and eventually resigned in 1997 after, among other things, trying to eliminate party patronage.
His party’s attempts to democratize how it chooses new leaders have also run into problems. In 1992, Liberal party members were assigned personal identification numbers to allow them to vote by telephone. But a Sydney lawyer named Nash Brogan, who claimed 250 new members had ceded their PINs to him, was shopping that block of votes around to candidates. No one took him up on that, and a party investigation found that Brogan’s offer was against the spirit but not the letter of the campaign rules. A decade later, again under fire for possible voting improprieties, the Grits are saying the process is clean. But in a province where anything goes in the political arena, those words have a distinctly hollow ring. G3
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