Hundreds of Progressive Conservatives came to town for the party’s annual meeting in the ballroom of the Westin Hotel last night looking for a leader. The “Tory Proud” slide shows playing at top volume on the big screens bookending a humongous Nova Scotia flag kept coming back to reassuring images of former Premier John Hamm and even dour PC federal leader Bob Stanfield from 60 years ago. Happier days. There were fleeting glimpses of Uncle John Buchanan and Rodney MacDonald, who was in the audience and brought along his fiddle to liven up the hospitality suites after the speechifying.
Nowhere through the trip down memory lane was so much as a trace of Jamie Baillie, the PC leader who for the last seven years led the PC party back from the electoral wilderness to form the Official Opposition with 16 MLAs. Until three weeks ago, last night was supposed to be a celebratory tribute and retirement party for Baillie. Instead, as everyone in Nova Scotia knows, he was forced to resign in disgrace after a single allegation of sexual harassment involving a female employee of the PC caucus. And no, sorry, we still don’t know the details.
Baillie was supposed to have been the headliner, the keynote speaker. I told my editor I’d buy him a beer if the name “Baillie” was mentioned from the stage — and as the night progressed it looked as if I would keep my money. Not one of the five leadership hopefuls in the running mentioned Baillie, although PC party president Terra Miller referred to him in a backhanded fashion — you “can’t disguise the fact this is a difficult and troubling time for the Party but we aren’t alone,” she said.
But then I lost my beer bet when in a strategic move by the party brass, elder statesman John Hamm took the stage to soothe and unify the peevish among them.
“Jamie Baillie is a friend of mine,” Hamm began in the same firm, measured tone that belies his 80 years. In the room you could hear a pin drop.
“I was shocked and saddened and heartsick for both the victim and Jamie’s family. Hard decisions were made for the right reasons and Terra Miller [PC party president] and Karla MacFarlane [interim PC leader] have served us well. We all know smart people who have made a stupid decision and we shouldn’t erase all they have accomplished.”
A spontaneous smattering of applause greets this remark, starting and stopping, from people who want to give Baillie his due but are self-conscious and tentative about whether it’s OK in this super-charged climate to even clap their hands. Would you be perceived as “anti-woman” if you applaud actions by a former leader who did much to support and increase the numbers of female candidates but left under a cloud of shame?
“Politics is unforgiving,” said Hamm, former N.S. premier from 1999-2006. “But family and friends must have compassion”.
The swift departure of the man who was supposed to be the toast of last night’s show left plenty of time to fill. Meeting organizers congratulated themselves on attracting 60 youth delegates among an almost entirely white audience estimated at between 600 and 700 people. (If 60 young people is an achievement, that speaks volumes).
With an almost collective sigh of relief, the room hooted and hollered for the speeches given by the five PCs who are running to become the next leader of the PC party.
Forty-seven-year-old Tim Houston, MLA for Pictou East, is The Reformer.
Houston said the fact 50 per cent of Nova Scotians stayed home on the last election day means people no longer believe in politics as usual and the PC party must change to reflect that. Cheers greeted his pledge that “our next platform will not be developed by a select few in the backroom.”
Houston said “we do not have to build the economy at the expense of the environment” — a calculation he described as “a false narrative.”
Last but not least, Houston said “bold ideas” are required to keep young people from leaving the province. He was the only candidate to float a specific policy idea: “How about people under age 26 paying no income tax on the first $50,000 earned?”
Elizabeth Smith-McCrossin, MLA for Cumberland South, is The Woman. “You are the Party and I am your Woman,” she declared. “This is the right time to elect a woman as leader of the PC party.”
Having played that card, Smith-McCrossin went on to describe herself as a businesswoman, registered nurse, and mother. If she becomes leader she said she would push for “leadership change” in health care that would put doctors in decision-making positions from which the McNeil government has excluded them.
The Dark Horse
Julie Chaisson is the Dark Horse leadership contender who announced she was entering the race the day before the annual meeting.
The PC candidate for Chester-St-Margaret’s riding ran unsuccessfully last election but strode alone and confidently to the stage accompanied by the song “I Was Born to Lead.” Chaisson was hired by the Halifax Port Authority to manage the Seaport Market and says she will apply her business background in leading change to change the political climate.
The Honest John
John Lohr, MLA for Kings North, is the Honest John campaigner who says he wants to put “integrity” back into politics. The successful businessman and Valley farmer said what the PC party needs now is “someone who cares and someone you can trust.”
Lohr spoke of “very dark days” a few years ago when in the space of three weeks his father died and he lost his son Caleb to suicide.
“I survived because of the love of family and friends, the fact I never stopped working, and my faith in God,” Lohr said to generous applause. If chosen party leader, he pledged to open up the province to onshore fracking, say ‘No’ to any carbon tax, and get rid of the tax on used cars.
The fifth leadership hopeful and the last to speak before the runup to the boozing in the hospitality suites was Cecil Clarke. A former PC cabinet minister for Economic Development in the Hamm era and the current mayor of the Cape Breton Regional Municipality could be described as The Cheerleader for Tory Proud. Members of Cecil Clarke’s team were giving away fleece scarves in Nova Scotia tartan embroidered with “Cecil Clarke: Ready to Lead.”
Clarke talked about the McNeil Liberals having put the “no” in Nova Scotia with their treatment of teachers and doctors. He left the crowd with a rousing “I’m ready to lead, you’re ready to move, let’s go build this great province of Nova Scotia.”
It’s hard to say if there’s a front runner to replace Jamie Baillie, but six elected MLAs joined Tim Houston and his family onstage to show their support for Team Tim. Still, it will be up to the rank-and-file party members to ultimately decide what makeover the PC Party chooses to make it relevant to people who have given up on politics.
The party issued a press release this morning saying a leadership announcement will be made at 11am Sunday.