Lori Turnbull is the director and an associate professor at the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University.
Tuesday’s decisive defeat of the Nova Scotia Liberals, and the poll-defying election of a Progressive Conservative majority government, marks the first time in the pandemic era that a provincial election in Canada did not return an incumbent government. But while many have been quick to draw lessons for the federal election campaign, there are unique narratives that explain why the situation is not a victory for Erin O’Toole’s Conservative Party nor a bad omen for Justin Trudeau’s Liberals.
The Nova Scotia Liberals may have expected that they would be rewarded for their highly effective management of the spread of COVID-19. Nova Scotia experienced very low infection rates compared with other jurisdictions in the country, due in large part to the 14-day quarantine requirement for anyone entering the province (people who are fully vaccinated are now exempt from this).
The trouble for Liberal Leader and outgoing Premier Iain Rankin was that this political legacy belongs more to Stephen McNeil, his predecessor. Mr. McNeil had been Liberal leader since 2007 and premier since 2013; he was at the helm when the pandemic hit in 2020. Last August, though, he surprisingly announced that he would be leaving politics. Mr. Rankin emerged as the victor of a low-key party leadership race in February, 2021, making him the first person to become a premier in Canada during the pandemic. But while he ran on issues such as climate change, equity and inclusion, he was not in a position to generate enthusiasm for his ideas once he was sworn in – all eyes were focused on COVID-19. And on that file, the shy 38-year-old, who needed time to build trust and familiarity, wasn’t able to match Mr. McNeil’s stern, authoritative tone; the former premier famously barked at Nova Scotians to “stay the blazes home,” which caught on as a slogan in many parts of the province.
The short electoral runway did not help, either. By the time Mr. Rankin won the party leadership in February, the government was already almost four years old, and provincial constitution provisions require an election to be held five years after the last one – ie., by the spring of 2022. An unexpected provincial lockdown in April made an election impossible then, and waiting for the end of the federal election campaign would risk voter turnout colliding with Nova Scotia’s unpredictable late-season weather. Mr. Rankin’s hand was also forced by the spring resignations of Liberal caucus members, which would have put his government in a minority position had the legislature returned to sit in the fall. All things considered, the timing of the call was likely the best option, but no scenario would have given Mr. Rankin the time he needed to build his brand while also making a big ask of the electorate: a third consecutive mandate for his Liberals.
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To be fair, many factors were out of his control. But he is not without fault. He never seemed to recover from unforced errors at the start of the campaign, including the public revelation of two DUI convictions when he was younger and a botched nomination process in a Dartmouth riding; he was dismissive about both situations, instead of transparent. Meanwhile, the New Democrats and Progressive Conservatives ran energetic campaigns, stimulating public dialogue around affordable housing and health care, respectively. In the week leading up to election day, Mr. Rankin was limiting his public appearances, which fuelled suspicion that the party figured its own brand was stronger than his.
Premier-designate Tim Houston will have a tough road ahead. His win comes largely from the rural parts of the province, so he’ll need to build inroads in cities, including Halifax. He must respond to the affordable housing crisis, whether with rent control (which he says he opposes) or something he thinks is better. His promises to bring in more doctors and nurses have been made by Nova Scotia politicians for time immemorial, so his most pressing challenge is to convince voters that he’s capable of doing what premiers before him – including John Savage and John Hamm, two former physicians – could not.
But federal Conservative watchers should restrain their glee. Mr. Houston identifies as a Red Tory and took special pains to distance himself from the federal party, even declaring that he wasn’t a member. The Nova Scotia PC leader put forth a progressive, state-led vision on the stump and often sounded more like Mr. Trudeau than Mr. O’Toole. His efforts to detach from the federal Conservative brand may have been instrumental in making his campaign successful – which, if anything, is an indictment of the federal Tories ahead of the fall vote.
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