Watching Premier Iain Rankin score one own goal after another — and then, oh god, no, yet another — on his Liberal campaign last week was fascinating in a rubberneck, train wreck, don’t look now, not again, JUST PLEASE STOP IT kind of way.
By itself, Rankin’s unforced gaffes probably won’t — and shouldn’t — flip too many votes in the election everyone insists is barreling down on our summer. But they do contribute to a growing unease, a sense our premier isn’t quite ready for the job he so desperately wants to keep.
It all began last Monday morning with a call to the premier’s office from veteran allnovascotia.com legislature reporter Brian Flinn. Flinn had received one of those journalistic Willy Wonka Golden Tickets — a no-return-address brown paper envelope containing information about long-ago driving-under-the-influence criminal charges involving the premier.
Would the premier care to answer Flinn’s questions?
He would not. And he did not.
Let’s take a brief timeout here. The most intriguing unanswered — and mostly unasked — question in this whole affair is this: who sent Flinn that brown paper envelope?
Generally speaking, reporters — I include myself in this uneasy choir — are reticent to ask too many probing questions about the sources of valuable leaked information. Doing so as a journalist might send a signal to future potential leakers you can’t be trusted to keep their identities secret.
But the problem is that the source of this information is almost certainly germane.
You’ll excuse me if I dismiss out of hand the notion the leaker was just a good citizen trying to bring a matter of public importance to light. He/she/they was almost certainly a political operative who’d ferreted around in the muck to come up with something — anything — they could pin on the premier at a tactically appropriate electoral moment in order to pull his popularity down a peg or two.
Such “oppo” research, of course, requires time and effort that might have been more constructively devoted to coming up with solutions to our awful and worsening family doctor shortage, or propose innovative ways to kickstart our COVID-ravaged economy.
But I digress from my digression.
We have an unhappy tradition in Nova Scotia of testing our politicians with their youthful transgressions.
Sometimes, a politician puts his own foot in it. During the 1998 provincial election, the Halifax Daily News compiled a collection of 20 cheeky, mostly good-natured questions for all the party leaders, including one that asked if they’d ever broken the law. NDP leader Robert Chisholm, who was leading his party to within a whisper of power at the time, said “no.” An anonymous tip followed almost immediately. When he was 19, Chisholm had been convicted of drinking and driving. In the election that followed, the NDP lost, and Chisholm resigned.
His successor, Darrell Dexter, was smart enough to fess up that he’d also been convicted of a DUI offence when he was 19, but making his mea culpa at the same time he announced he was running for leader. The issue didn’t become an issue in the leadership race, or in his career as a political leader and, eventually, premier. Other things happened, but we won’t go there now.
It turns out the back story to a 2000 news story about then-Tory Education Minister Jane Purves’ youthful addiction to street drugs was more complicated and convoluted than I’d understood at the time.
During a party, someone tipped off David Rodenhiser, then a Halifax Daily News reporter — are we sensing a theme here? — to Purves’s personal history. He followed up. She granted him an interview in which she was forthcoming about her addiction and recovery. But then, before Rodenhiser could publish his scoop, Purves issued her own news release and called a press conference to pre-emptively respond to — and, more importantly, take control of — the paper’s story.
Purves won praise for her candour, and the issue disappeared almost as quickly as her advisors had concocted it.
“Years later,” Rodenhiser wrote in a column last week for the CBC, “I learned the tip was a plant and I’d been set up by political operatives to get the story out in a controlled fashion.”
I’m guessing — hoping, for their sakes — Rankin’s inner circle weren’t responsible for strategically leaking his bad news last week. But they, and Rankin himself, are certainly culpable for what happened after that.
Choosing not to answer questions from allnovascotia’s Flinn — another Daily News alumnus, it should be noted — Rankin began what was supposed to be Monday’s afternoon’s politics-free COVID briefing by announcing he wanted to “address a personal issue.”
He’d been charged with impaired driving twice, he explained, in 2003 and 2005 when he was still in his early 20s. He’d been convicted in 2003, been fined $1,200 and had his licence suspended for a year. In 2005, he was charged again, he acknowledged, but this time he had been “found innocent.” Questions — he didn’t say from whom — had been raised, so he wanted to explain.
He was sorry. “I make no excuses for my behaviour,” he told reporters. “I was wrong, and I made a bad decision. I’m very, very sorry for my actions half a lifetime ago. I was selfish.”
Story told. Nothing more to see here. Case closed.
But of course it wasn’t, and there was much more to see. It didn’t take reporters more than a few hours to put the lie to Rankin’s carefully parsed “found innocent.” CBC reporter Taryn Grant:
Court records offer more details of what happened around 6 a.m. on July 25, 2005, when the white Subaru Rankin was driving took a hard turn around a bend on Kearney Lake Road in Halifax and flipped into a ditch.
At Rankin’s 2006 trial, witness James Pentecost, a construction worker, testified he saw the crash. It was light out, and the road was clear and dry at the time, he said. He was talking to a 911 operator when a man emerged from the passenger side of the wrecked Subaru appearing “groggy.”
Pentecost said it was hard to tell whether the driver was impaired or in shock, but he said he could smell alcohol on the man’s breath. “It was noticeable,” he said…
In testimony at Rankin’s 2006 trial, Pentecost said the driver of the crashed Subaru claimed there was a deer in the road, and he had swerved to avoid it. Pentecost, who had been approaching from the opposite direction, said he had not seen a deer.
Const. Bridgette Dunlap, then a 14-year veteran of the Halifax Regional Police, responded to the scene on Kearney Lake Road where she said she found Rankin being treated in an ambulance by a paramedic.
“He was thick tongued and … he was slurring at times,” Dunlap testified.
She said he had a bar stamp on his right hand and smelled of alcohol.
“I had asked him if he had been out last night and was he drinking,” Dunlap said.
At that point during her testimony, Rankin’s defence lawyer, Stan MacDonald, interrupted to contest the relevance of Dunlap’s conversation with Rankin. After the interruption, Dunlap did not say how Rankin responded.
Once Rankin was cleared by the paramedic, Dunlap arrested him, read him his rights and a breathalyzer demand, and brought him to the back of her police vehicle. Dunlap said Rankin said he understood his rights, and he wanted to speak to a lawyer.
Rankin was taken to the police station in downtown Halifax and given two breathalyzer tests. According to Dunlap, the first reading was 0.115 and the second was 0.15 — almost twice the legal limit.
At trial, police submitted a photocopy of the document that showed the breathalyzer results, who took the test and who administered it, but because it wasn’t the original, the judge threw it out as evidence. The judge found Rankin guilty of a charge of impaired driving, but acquitted him on a second charge of driving with a blood-alcohol level above the legal limit.
That conviction was later overturned on appeal. When the province’s public prosecution service offered no evidence during the retrial in 2008, the case was dismissed.
The second most interesting — and never unasked but always unanswered — question in the days since the initial reveal is, was Iain Rankin drinking that night? Was he drunk?
Rankin could have pre-empted such detailed questioning by admitting upfront on Monday that he’d gotten off on a technicality, not found innocent, and was truly sorry for it all.
What his advisors had clearly intended to be a continuation of the premier’s triumphant pre-election dollar-dispensing tour of the province quickly became a week-long embarrassing apology-without-explanation run from the microphones.
On Wednesday, two days after he tried to put it all behind him, he was still dogged by questions he ineptly dodged. “As I said Monday, I want to reiterate that I’m very, very sorry for my actions as someone that was very young. It’s regrettable that I have to relive that experience right now.”
On Thursday, after a cabinet meeting, reporters were still pressing him about what had really happened back in 2005. He still didn’t answer, choosing instead to offer up his general, generic apologia: “People make mistakes and lessons can be learned, and you shouldn’t let mistakes in your past define you.”
The problem for Rankin now is not the mistakes in his past but the ones in his present about that past, which are now threatening to define him. That definition isn’t flattering.