A cautionary tale for Nova Scotia’s Liberal leadership hopefuls

Now that it’s out of power, the Liberal party is imploding. As usual. Those hoping to lead the party today might take a moment to remember how the Liberals fared the last time they lost an election. Anyone remember Francis MacKenzie?

The existential problem for any political party whose primary raison d’êtres are to gain power and then cling to it forever, no matter what happens… is what happens when the voters finally abandon them? As they inevitably do. May I present Exhibit 1: the Nova Scotia Liberal Party of Nova Scotia, circa 2022.

The party’s fractious, feckless faithful met March 3 and 4 for their first annual general meeting since 2019 …

  • the first since COVID changed everything;
  • the first since the August 2020 resignation of their long-time leader, Premier Stephen “Stay the Blazes Home” McNeil;
  • the first since the February 2021 selection of Iain Rankin as his replacement;
  • the first since the August 2021 general election when Rankin, drove a seemingly insurmountable lead in public opinion polls off a cliff, leading a Liberal party seeking its third straight majority government to ignominious defeat;
  • the first since January 5, 2022 when Rankin announced his resignation as party leader after less than a year on the job;
  • the first since January 30 when the party announced plans for a July 9 convention to select its new leader; and
  • the last before the March 21st deadline for two (so-far) leadership candidates to formally register.

Given the current turmoil ravaging the party from the inside, the best advice for anyone seeking the leader’s job might be to reconsider your career path.

Turmoil?

We could start with a “scathing internal report” dissecting what went wrong during last year’s election. The party, the report said, had been “ill-prepared for the campaign, despite having control over the timing,” and entered the race with no “positive, consistent vision of what it intended to do in the future.” The campaign itself had turned into an “all top-down” affair riddled with “missteps” that left the grassroots “alienated, neglected and disrespected.”

Other than that… everything went according to plan.

Perhaps not surprising, given its stark conclusions, the report generated controversy inside the party.

Woman smiling at camera
Maura Ryan (Twitter)

During one teleconference between the report’s authors — retired senator Jim Cowan and former candidate Maura Ryan — and party officials, including Rankin, Party President Joseph Khoury and Executive Director Mike Mercer, harsh words were exchanged.

Ryan later claimed in a formal complaint that Mercer had been “aggressive, disrespectful and verbally abusive.”

Mercer wrote a letter of apology to Ryan. Ryan didn’t accept it.

But in his letter, Mercer raised the stakes by pinning part of the blame for the Liberals election loss on former Premier McNeil for having left the party unprepared to fight it.

Ryan shared his letter with McNeil.

That brought McNeil into the squabble with his own letter attacking Mercer — apparently a longstanding foe — and demanding the party do something to deal with him.

On February 17, Mercer left his job.

Mike Mercer (LinkedIn)

“I am writing to inform you of staffing changes at the Nova Scotia Liberal Party office,” Khoury blandly began a letter to members. “Executive director Michael Mercer has departed the organization.”

The party didn’t say whether he was fired or had resigned, but Khoury’s memo to party members went out of its way to praise Mercer for his “seven and a half years of service and dedication to the [Nova Scotia Liberal Party] and especially for always carrying himself with the highest honesty and integrity.”

One might consider that effusive endorsement a barely veiled attack on McNeil.

While all of that was happening, an anonymous source began peddling stories to the media about a former party staffer who’d allegedly misappropriated $140,000 in party funds. The person had been allowed to leave their job in early 2021 after repaying the funds but without the party ever notifying the police about what had happened.

Andrew Macdonald, a former allnovascotia.com reporter who now runs his own online politics website, The Macdonald Notebook, was the first to report the story, which Khoury immediately dismissed in another note to probably confused party faithful. The story, he said, was based on “false information and insinuations,” and was being circulated by someone with an axe to grind. He insisted the party had done the right thing, including following outside legal advice on how to deal with the incident.

Meanwhile — are you following the bouncing Liberal buck? — Cameron MacKay, the president of the Colchester North Liberal Association, sent out her own email criticizing Khoury’s response as “inappropriate” and “concerning,” and calling on the party to postpone this weekend’s annual general meeting.

The party said no to that. “The upcoming board elections and leadership race are a vital part of the renewal process,” it said, “and we don’t want to delay that opportunity for revitalization.”

But if renewal starts with recognition, that begs questions: why were neither Ryan nor Cowan, the co-authors of said scathing internal report, nor Dale Palmeter and Joanne Macrae, the ill-fated campaign’s co-managers, invited to speak at the AGM?

Meanwhile — keep up! — Cameron Mackay (she of that email calling for cancellation of the AGM) and Trish Maynard, another grassroots Liberal, created a website to promote a petition calling for cancellation of the AGM until after July’s leadership convention. According to the website, “approximately 1,300 registered Liberals” had signed the petition versus the 500 who had registered for the AGM.

The AGM went ahead anyway.

The AGM went ahead anyway. Officially, all was sweetness and light. “This party and what we stand for, it’s just too important to let division set in,” Liberal Leader Iain Rankin told the mostly virtual delegates during his speech.

Don’t believe a syllable of it.

Meanwhile — again — Mary Clancy, a former Liberal MP and current vice president of the provincial Liberals, wrote an open letter about the whole affair, castigating Maura Ryan and making the case Ryan was not invited to speak at the convention “because she has consistently broken her commitments to confidentiality” by leaking documents, including Mike Mercer’s apology to her.

In response, Ryan, a 30-year party volunteer, not to forget a former candidate and far enough inside the tent to be one of those asked to figure out what went wrong in 2021, shredded her membership card.

Meanwhile — still — here we are…

MLAs Angela Simmonds and Zach Churchill, the party’s two current declared leadership hopefuls, now have until the March 21 deadline to submit their registration papers to change their minds.

While they do, they might want to give a thought to what happened after the last Liberal party implosion more than two decades ago.

In 1997, party members, fed up with their own leader’s anti-patronage policies, pushed John Savage to the political exit before he’d even completed his first term as Nova Scotia’s elected premier.

Savage was succeeded by former MP Russell MacLellan who barely hung on to a minority government in 1997 and was then unceremoniously tossed into history’s dustbin two years later by John Hamm’s Conservatives.

It was all downhill for party leaders after that.

Between 2000 and 2007, the Liberals endured a parade of five, mostly forgotten, here-today-gone-later-today leaders— Wayne Gaudet (who served twice as interim leader), Danny Graham, Francis MacKenzie and Michel Samson (also interim) — before Stephen McNeil finally arrived on the scene in 2007.

McNeil probably wouldn’t have survived either if Darrell Dexter’s one-term NDP government had not defeated itself back in 2013.

Memo to Simmonds and Churchill: Be careful what you wish for.

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A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner

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