Stephen Harper must feel like a ghost is returning to haunt him. It's been years since Bill Casey was a thorn in his side.
He's one of the few Conservative MPs who clashed publicly with Mr. Harper. Now he's coming back as a Liberal.
Mr. Harper booted the former Nova Scotia MP out of the Conservative caucus in 2007 for voting against his own party's budget because it unilaterally altered the Atlantic Accords – and that made Mr. Casey an icon in his home province.
As an independent, Mr. Casey ended up in remote backbenches, next to a new Liberal MP named Justin Trudeau. When Mr. Casey quit politics, he kept in touch. "Whenever I got upset, I rattled off an e-mail to him. And he rattled one back. And that's been going on for about six years," Mr. Casey said in an interview.
Mr. Casey's comeback is bad news for Mr. Harper. In Atlantic Canada, Mr. Casey brings bad memories for Conservatives. It's hard to target an icon. And the Liberals will hope he serves as a symbol in the rest of the country, too, as they seek to portray Mr. Harper as an autocrat.
Mr. Casey had been a veteran Tory, first elected in 1988. He stayed with the merged Conservatives in 2004 when some Atlantic Canada Red Tory MPs walked away. But his showdown came when Mr. Harper undid a signed deal between Nova Scotia and Ottawa over oil-and-gas revenues, a change inserted into the 2007 budget. Mr. Casey voted against it, and was expelled.
Mr. Casey was hailed in his home province and re-elected as an independent. Some of the Atlantic Canada anger over the accords still echoes now. You can feel it in Friday's editorial in the St. John's Telegram, which recalled how Newfoundland Conservative MPs of the day "all backed their prime minister." The Telegram noted approvingly: "[Mr.] Casey decided his allegiance was with his province."
His return as a Liberal is another blow for the Conservatives in Atlantic Canada, where they're already far behind in polls. If Mr. Casey wins the Liberal nomination, he'll run against Cumberland-Colchester-Musquodoboit Valley Conservative MP Scott Armstrong – and Mr. Armstrong's Conservative riding president has already jumped ship to Mr. Casey.
The Conservatives have taken shots at Mr. Casey. Industry Minister James Moore tweeted that he won't fit with Liberals because he's pro-life – but Mr. Casey said he's pro-choice, and voted against a Mulroney government abortion bill he said restricted abortions. He once voted against gay marriage, but happily admits he's changed view, saying he's learned since.
He was on the left of the Conservatives, but felt like MPs didn't have a say, anyway, he said. He recalled sitting on a Commons committee considering a motion against cluster munitions, and receiving a note instructing Conservative MPs to vote against. "We'd never talked about it," he said. "I wrote back, 'I don't like cluster bombs.'"
The "mission" that motivated his comeback – at 69, five years after leaving politics, and surviving a battle with cancer – is restoring the role of MPs, he said.
He said he's tired of seeing questions in Parliament rebuffed with partisan attacks, and MPs told how to vote without discussion. Even MPs' statements before Question Period are now party-scripted attacks (two New Brunswick MPs read attacks on him this week.) He rails against omnibus bills, packed full of hundreds of disparate items, which don't allow an MP to hold government to account on each. Mr. Casey insists that, to his surprise, people seem interested in those issues.
But in the past those inside-Ottawa issues have not really motivated many voters. Still, the Liberals like the narrative: Mr. Casey promotes the idea that MPs can't bring local views to Ottawa because Mr. Harper doesn't listen.
And the Conservatives might find that Mr. Casey is a hard man to attack. He's not a hard-nose. He responds with respectful compliments. He said he was relieved Mr. Moore had no better shot than his abortion tweet because "he's a really smart guy." He won't say a bad word against the Conservative MP he'll try to unseat, Mr. Armstrong – who used to be Mr. Casey's riding president.
"I have a lot of respect for Scott Armstrong. I just don't think he can do his job," Mr. Casey said. "I know for a fact he can't."