Premier Stephen McNeil speaks during Thursday’s announcement. — Screenshot/Facebook Live Credit: Zane Woodford

Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil announced Thursday he’s stepping down.

After 17 years in public office and seven as premier, McNeil made the surprise announcement during a post-cabinet news conference:

Seventeen years is a long time, and it’s long enough.

Today I’m announcing I will be stepping down and leaving public office. I have informed the party to plan for a leadership campaign, which I expect will take months. I will stay on and continue to govern, and I will be here to work with public health to keep Nova Scotians safe until the next leader is chosen.

I love this job. I’ve enjoyed every day of it, and every day I’m inspired by the people of this province. But this is not a life-long career. I have always believed that governing is not about power. It is about purpose. And I want to thank Nova Scotians for giving me the opportunity to be your premier. I may not have always gotten it right, but here’s what I know for sure: we are better together and being kind matters.

McNeil was first elected to represent the Annapolis riding in 2003, and reelected four more times. He became Liberal Party leader in 2007 and then premier in 2013.

McNeil told reporters he’d been planning to step down earlier this year. He tabled his government’s budget and then hoped to make the announcement after March Break. But then came the crisis: the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I was looking towards April and of course COVID happened and I recommitted to the job. I actually looked at and reconsidered whether I should run again.” But he ultimately decided it was time to go.

It’s never been, for me, about power … I’d like to think I’m the same guy who got elected 17 years ago. A little greyer, a little heavier, no beard. But I think to the core of who I am is the same. I think I govern to the values of my parents, that I did what I believed was right no matter what the political costs were going to be, and there have been some. It cost at the ballot box at times. But I was not going to leave this job having Nova Scotians say I was paralyzed by the opportunity.

The premier got choked up talking about his family’s sacrifice in supporting him as premier, and said he’d only told his son about the decision this week. He told his cabinet on Thursday.

McNeil’s legacy

McNeil started his comments on Thursday recapping his time in office and what he sees as the accomplishments of his government — mostly austerity and balanced budgets, but also the public inquiry into the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children, his government’s organ donation changes, Boat Harbour, and pre-primary.

Teachers protest outside the legislature in 2017.

His time as premier has been marked by repeated fights with nearly every one of the province’s public sector unions — teachers, nurses, Crown prosecutors, and more. But McNeil said he had no regrets:

It goes against political wisdom to get into a fight with the teachers’ union going into a provincial election campaign, which we did the last time because we believed what we were doing was right. And my colleagues stood with us, going into the campaign and knocking on doors through the campaign, and the voters rewarded us and sent us back. They never cracked and I’m so proud of them for everything they’ve been doing.

McNeil defended his labour relations and austerity as controlling “the cost of government” and said he grew the economy, allowing his government to spend on other things, like pre-primary.

I wish I could’ve been able to do that without having as many protests as I had. I think for the first five years I don’t think I had a session where there wasn’t some form of protest, but that’s governing. I was elected to make decision and I knew that not everyone was going to like them. But I did what I believed was in our collective best interest and I think we’re better off.

The premier pointed out he has siblings who are teachers and public servants and that hasn’t been easy, but he’s thankful for their support.

“I’m grateful that they’ve continued to love me and support me and I’m looking forward to playing a bit of golf with them and spending some time and not being blamed for everything,” he said.

Aside from golf, the premier gave no indication of his future plans and said he hadn’t received any offers from the private sector.

Opposition reaction

Progressive Conservative leader Tim Houston thanked the premier in a statement Thursday, and said he “put his full faith and efforts towards building what he believed to be the best possible version of Nova Scotia.”

Our political differences are evident. We haven’t always agreed. However, I have always believed it to be in the best interest of democracy, government, and all Nova Scotians that our disagreement is respectful, spirited, and productive. I know the Premier will miss defending his positions in the Legislature, just as I will miss challenging those positions in our exchanges.

In an interview with the Examiner, NDP leader Gary Burrill called Thursday “a historic day.”

“Whatever people think about Stephen McNeil’s leadership, and my opinions are pretty well known, I don’t think it changes the fact that he has been a very significant presence in the contemporary history of Nova Scotia,” Burrill said.

Burrill said he respects Premier McNeil despite their very different political orientations.

I see the present and future of Nova Scotia in an entirely opposite way from Stephen McNeil … During the time he has been premier, I think the times have cried out for government investment which the province has been deprived of because of his singular, over-focus on balancing the budget. Whether that be a $15 minimum wage or the fair rights of the labour movement in Nova Scotia, I have certainly been on the opposite side from him. But all that aside, I recognize him as an individual of substance and not a superficial person. That there is really somebody there. I have always considered him a worthy opponent.

What’s next for Nova Scotia

McNeil said he’s not leaving until a new leader is chosen, but the party needs time to run a leadership race in time for an election. That election has to happen by June 2022, but is likely to happen sooner.

McNeil was asked whether Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Dwight Ball’s resignation influenced his decision.

“It was really nothing to do with that,” McNeil replied, though he said he’s been talking to Ball this week and they’re friends.

But there are parallels in how the province’s leadership will move ahead.

Ball announced in February he was stepping down, and that province’s Liberal Party held a leadership contest. Just this week, Andrew Furey won the leadership contest and became premier-designate. Ball will stay on as premier until Furey is sworn in.

McNeil said no one’s expressed interest in succeeding him because they didn’t know he was stepping down.

“I’ll still be here for a while,” McNeil told reporters. “You guys will still be able to ask me questions and complain about me.”

With files from Jennifer Henderson

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Zane Woodford is the Halifax Examiner’s municipal reporter. He covers Halifax City Hall and contributes to our ongoing PRICED OUT housing series. Twitter @zwoodford

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  1. Anyone who writes about Stephen McNeil and does not include sober, “frank” discussions about poverty and wages in Nova Scotia should not be taken seriously.

  2. No opposition from the house and now no consequences from voters.

    I’m betting the present Covid regulations and restrictions aren’t changing anytime soon.

    Stephen won’t be booking tee times until next fall at best. He likes being the boss.

  3. Premier McNeil has led this province to the best of his ability. Many will likely remember him for his “stay the blazes home” admonition. However, McNeil took stands on racism that resulted in government actions in the area of reconciliation and in the area of legislation (Boat Harbour Act, e.g.) that have moved this province forward.
    His replacement as party leader will daunt the Liberals in the province. His replacement as Premier will be daunting given the virus, the deficit, the inquiries, the…

    Thanks for your efforts Stephen!

  4. I have predicted this for some time. What do you think Mr. McNeil’s legacy will be? I expect that people will remember Mr. McNeil positively for his covid19 tag team efforts with Dr. Strang and not much for anything else. He accomplished very little to move Nova Scotia forward in his two terms as Premier and set N.S. back in many areas. Mr. McNeil will receive the maximum pension that is offered in Nova Scotia. Time to get rid of the NeoLiberal attitude in N.S.

  5. Not much leadership talent on Liberal benches. No Liberal MP will step down. A senate seat has been open since April 7.

  6. High in the polls thanks to covid, but low in the deficit-busting thanks to covid, with two inquiries (gw and northwood) underway that are unlikely to be flattering : a great time to quit…

  7. maybe the heat over the Northwood Centre is too much for him,,,,who knows,,but its time…….

  8. He’s sees the writing on the wall; the only possible way for Liberals to stay in power. Now it’s just a matter of deciding who in cabinet is most palatable for a chance to beat Tim Houston in the next election.
    Who has the least amount of McNeil stank on them.

    1. I suspect he just made it a lot harder for the Liberals to get re-elected. Stepping back and taking an impersonal view, he seems to have a lot of support outside the public service and Halifax Examiner crowd. He also would have benefitted from the COVID-response boost that every half-competent incumbent in Canada is going to get next election.

      Instead, his replacement is going to have a very short time to build a name for themselves. And given the fact that his leadership style is so strong-headed, the Liberal identity for the past 7 years has been “Stephen McNeil”. At this point the support the Liberals have is really support for McNeil. Good luck changing that in a year.