Planning for a re-opening and hoping for a re-election

Premier Iain Rankin needs a do-over after a gaffe-prone first few months in office. His government’s gradual re-opening gives him another chance to make a better impression.

Premier Iain Rankin and Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Robert Strang announcing the reopening plan at the COVID-19 briefing on May 28, 2021. Photo: Communications Nova Scotia

On Friday afternoon, Premier Iain Rankin announced what he describes as a five-phase plan to allow too-long shuttered, increasingly restless, can’t-wait Nova Scotians to resume something approximating normal lives. “Our phased plan,” he boasted during a COVID briefing, “will allow us to safely enjoy summer” while various vaccines are making immunity magic inside our bodily herd and remaining restrictions on our movements and gatherings are slowly retreating into a best-forgotten past.

By early fall, Rankin’s plan — his hope and our dream — is that we will finally emerge, victorious, from the past awful 18 months into a nirvana of our “new normal of living with COVID.”

So, that must mean Iain Rankin plans to call a provincial election for September.

It would be wrong, of course, to imagine our premier would deliberately manipulate a public health emergency just for his political benefit.

It is never wrong, on the other hand, to assume politics plays a critical role in every government calculus. Especially in Nova Scotia. Especially in this government.

Iain Rankin, it is worth reminding ourselves, was the choice of just 52 per cent of the 8,100 Liberal delegates who cast virtual ballots at the party’s non-convention four months ago. That means fewer than 0.5 per cent of the province’s population actually voted to make Rankin the premier of all he surveys, even pro tem.

Worse, Rankin has spent much of his short time in office disappointing those he’d hoped to win over, That includes especially those soft left progressives — NDP and Green voters, as well as more liberal Liberals and Red Tories made nervous by their federal Conservative cousins’ climate change deniers — Rankin is eager to lure into his “generational-change” big tent.

Instead, his much-touted new green deal soon sputtered into nothing more substantive than the same-old pale green kowtowing to industry. And so it has continued.

On the flip side, to those who had come to admire the authoritarian, stay-the-blazes-home leadership style of his grumpy neoliberal predecessor, Rankin has seemed more schoolboy than schoolmaster — opening up too soon, shutting down too hard, trying to show he’s in control, never quite pulling it off.

Rankin’s public performance to date, in fact, is what put paid to any dreams his advisors may have harboured at the beginning for Rankin to sweep into the premier’s office, make a string of popular funding pronouncements, meet the legislature long enough to table an optimistic budget and then dissolve it so he could seek his own mandate to govern… before anyone could ask too many questions.

To be fair, COVID’s virulent variant third wave didn’t help.

And now his government is in an even worse mess. On Tuesday, June 1, the Rankin government (its preferred adjectival descriptor) begins the fifth and final year of a well-worn electoral mandate he inherited from Stephen McNeil. Five has not been a lucky number for any of our last three premiers — Dexter, Cameron, Regan — who also tried and failed to outlast their own inevitability.

To make matters even worse, Rankin’s razor-thin majority is about to be shaved clean into a minority. In May, McNeil officially resigned as MLA for Annapolis. On Tuesday, former cabinet minister Margaret Miller is set to quit in righteous indignation over Rankin’s hiring of a “misogynistic” staffer she claims repeatedly disrespected women.

That will leave the Liberals with just 24 members staring across the House of Assembly at 25 opposition MLAs and two empty seats.

Rankin can’t now go back to the legislature for a mulligan, even if he wanted to, which he does not, because… well, look how that went the last time.

So, he will need to go to the polls, probably sooner rather than later. Waiting until the bitter end is not a good look — and the outcome is usually bittter.

Although public opinion polls today still appear to favour the Liberals, we have already seen — and so has Rankin’s braintrust — just how quickly opinion can turn, how tricky prediction really is.

Rankin and his team will need all the time their gradual reopening will allow. He needs a second chance to make a better first impression. And he needs to hope September lives up to his hopes — and our dreams.

A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner

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