November 23, 2006
Rodney Mac-Donald fights to stay on message
A year of leadership in action.
by Stephen Kimber
Rodney MacDonald looks more like the guy who’s just realized he’s landed smack in the can’t-get-out-of-the-way path of a runaway freight train than the dignified, in-control premier of Nova Scotia. His latest "important good news" press conference is barely five minutes old and, already, reporters have hijacked his sound-bite message track. That upbeat message was supposed to be: "Your Energy Rebate: Savings at Home," a new-old program he’s just re-announced. Its stated goal is to reduce Nova Scotians’ heating costs by eliminating the province’s take from the HST on home heating bills.
But one of the reporters immediately wants to know what guarantee the province has that the oil companies won’t jack up prices and suck any savings out of the pockets of consumers?
Another asks whether the government has taken any steps to make sure landlords pass on the savings to tenants?
Still another points out that the government’s new program, which is supposed to save the average family $200 a year, will replace a similar program specifically targeted at helping the poor. It had provided $250 per family. Why take away a program that gives $250 to a needy family in order to give $200 to "some guy making 200 grand?"
And, oh, yeah, since this isn’t really a new program at all—the government just moved up the planned start date by a month to December 1—what about all those be-prepared people who’ve already bought their first tank of winter fuel?
MacDonald has been doing his annoyingly on-message best to deflect, ignore or at least not answer the questions. Our new program is called ‘Your Energy Rebate’ because it gives Nova Scotians real savings on their energy costs at home, he repeats. And repeats. It isn’t working.
And now, CBC-TV reporter Paul Withers, who had been sitting slumped in a chair at the back of the conference room, has suddenly leaned forward to commandeer the premier’s press conference train, switch tracks and ride MacDonald’s hoped for supper-hour TV news message track right off the rails.
He isn’t even asking about the rebate program! Is it true, Withers demands, that the premier’s government gave up untold millions of taxpayers’ dollars during middle-of-last- night negotiations to strike a bad-for-the-province pension deal with health care workers just so he could avoid having to face a noisy, nasty demonstration at the opening of the legislature tonight, and a possible labour disruption while the House is in session?
It was the afternoon of the evening of the opening of the fall legislature session and Rodney MacDonald’s goal today had been to show, belatedly, that he really is in charge, not only of his government’s agenda but also of events.
The problem is he isn’t.
To say that Rodney Joseph MacDonald has had a bad first year in the provincial political spotlight almost goes without saying. And yet, it is worth saying—and worth remembering—that some things went incredibly right for MacDonald since November 4, 2005, when he officially launched his campaign for his party’s leadership on by declaring, "My friends, I am ready!" For starters, he defied conventional wisdom that he was just the kid in a crowd of adults, running to position himself for "next time." Instead, he won this convention. And then he went on to not only lead his party to victory in last June’s provincial general election but also increased its share of the popular vote by two percentage points.
All of which is true. But none of which matters. For a couple of reasons. First, and ostensibly most important, there is the reality that MacDonald couldn’t translate his popular vote success into seats; the party actually lost two ridings it had previously held, making MacDonald the leader of a minority government instead of the majority his supporters had envisioned, and expected.
And then—perhaps ultimately more important—there is the contradictory figure of Rodney MacDonald himself. It’s more than just the obvious—the "family values" candidate dogged by rumours of infidelity. Despite his long history as a musician and entertainer—and his friends’ insistence he really is "a fun guy with a great sense of humour"—MacDonald still also comes across in public as over-scripted and under-rehearsed, uncertain of his own speechifying certainties. And despite what should be political strengths—at 34, he is the second-youngest premier in Nova Scotia history, but he’d already had seven years of cabinet-level experience by the time he won the job—MacDonald has also so far failed to convince Nova Scotia voters he is experienced enough, perhaps even smart enough, to be premier.
If we’re going to understand why Rodney MacDonald so badly wanted a job that—so far at least—he seems so spectacularly ill-suited to, the logical first step is to figure out who he is, where he comes from and what makes him tick. Which is why, on this overcast fall day, I find myself at One Government Place on Granville Street in the blandly named but über high-tech Multipurpose Room, where MacDonald’s government holds its weekly cabinet meeting and where MacDonald has agreed to spend an hour answering my questions.
This interview is probably part of a larger political strategy to recast MacDonald’s image as a proactive leader, especially among younger voters in Halifax, where he is seen as anything but.
Since the end of the summer of his total disconnect, in fact, MacDonald has suddenly become our front-and-centre premier, the positive face of virtually every progressive government announcement from a new school lunch program, to political party financing reform, to the energy rebate program…. Some announcements, of course, play better than others.
MacDonald breezes in a few minutes late, accompanied by press aide Sasha Irving. They’re just back from what was supposed to be a show-and-tell tour of the Harbour Solutions sewage treatment facilities with federal cabinet minister Peter MacKay. But this also happens to be the morning after Liberal MPs accused MacKay of comparing his former girlfriend and now Liberal MP Belinda Stronach to a dog, which means that MacDonald was mostly a spectator while the pack of hungry-hound reporters circled MacKay’s raw-meat carcass. If that "gotcha" scene brought back bad memories for the premier—MacDonald had recently endured his own encounters with a press corps salivating for details of his personal life—he doesn’t let it show.
In person, in fact, MacDonald seems far less stiff than his public persona; there is a twinkle in his eyes that contrasts with the deer-caught-in-the-headlights stare that is his television face, and his welcoming smile seems far more natural than the frozen one he pasted on for the camera shutters during the last general election campaign. He shakes my hand firmly, plops down into a fat leather chair at the head of the table, stretches his legs out straight and leans his head against the leather.
So, he says without saying, ask away.
I awkwardly begin to explain, saying I’m hoping to find the person behind the stereotype of the fiddle-playing, gym-teaching—
"I wasn’t just a gym teacher," he cuts me off. Not unkindly. "I taught junior and senior high school," he says. "CLM [Career and Life Management], Atlantic Canadian Studies, biology, music—I wasn’t just a gym teacher." It is as if he feels the need to correct the record, to counter the unspoken suggestion that maybe he isn’t… well… sophisticated enough to be premier. This is good, I think. A little later, however, as if he’s forgotten what he told me, he says becoming a gym teacher was always his "dream job."
By the end of the hour when Irv
ing reminds us the premier has to leave for another meeting, I have a notebook full of words—and no better sense of who Rodney MacDonald really is.
That’s not to say I didn’t learn anything. I learned MacDonald can trace his roots back to 18th century ships that carried refugees from Scotland, and that he cared enough about his family history to visit Lochaber, the village where some of his ancestors came from, but also that he doesn’t appear to know much more about the details of the story of their journey from then to now.
I learned too that, like plenty of Cape Breton families, many of his forbearers were forced to leave home to make a living—and new lives—in places like Boston and Detroit.
Luckily, Rodney’s parents weren’t among them. Which is how he came to be born, raised and has remained rooted in Mabou, a magical, musical—almost mythical—fishing and farming community of 1,500 in Inverness County at the tip of a tongue of water that snakes in from the Northumberland Strait on the less travelled, more Gaelic western coast of Cape Breton.
"It’s a great community," he tells me. "People look at small communities and say, ‘There’s nothing to do,’ but for me it was the total opposite." Sports. Music. Church. School. Rodney graduated from Grade 12 in the same school where he began Primary. There were 44 students in his graduating class.
Did he ever, I wonder, consider moving away, living somewhere else, even for a while? One of the knocks against MacDonald is that he seems too parochial, too insular, too unworldly, that he doesn’t have the kind of life experience a premier needs.
"I thought about it—" He pauses. "—for a moment. I recall saying to my wife, ‘If we don’t stay home, who’s going to stay home?’ It’s a great place to live."
MacDonald comes from a long line of farmers and fishermen. One of his uncles, he says with a certain pride, is still a fisherman, and Rodney himself did a schoolboy stint as a "lobster fisherman’s assistant."
His own father, Alex Angus MacDonald, earned his living working as a pipefitter at Stora Industries, and Rodney became a teacher.
Rodney’s mother, Elizabeth Ann, was a stay-at-home mom who looked after Rodney and his sisters—one older, two younger—becoming a librarian only after the children were grown. She is also—and significantly for Rodney—a member of the Beaton clan, one of Cape Breton’s most famous musical families. Rodney’s late grandfather, Donald Angus, was a legendary fiddler; his grandmother a well-known pianist. He can, he told one interviewer, "identify 40 fiddlers, pipers and step dancers" in his family tree.
Rodney started step dancing at four, made his first public performance at the Mayflower Mall in Sydney when he was eight and began fiddle lessons with an uncle when he was 12. As a young man, Rodney performed occasionally with both Natalie MacMaster and Ashley MacIsaac (in the days when Ashley still "dressed to the hilt, with a shirt and tie and dress pants"), and briefly considered becoming a full-time musician himself. During and after university, in fact, he and his cousin, Glenn Graham, another fiddler, performed as Rodney and Glenn. They played all over Nova Scotia—including frequent Saturday night gigs at Your Father’s Mustache in Halifax, where displaced Cape Bretoners would pack the place from 10pm until closing time—as well as in Boston, Toronto and even Scotland. Their 1997 CD, Traditionally Rockin’, was nominated for two East Coast Music Awards. They even set up their own record label.
"Things were starting to get serious," MacDonald remembers.
But he had already decided to get serious in a different way. He’d come home from university to a job teaching in the school he’d attended, had married his childhood sweetheart, Lori-Ann Gillis, that same year and was now about to become a father. "Musicians," he says simply, "are gone away a lot."
He had other plans for his future.
When Nova Scotia Tories selected the then-33-year-old MacDonald as their new leader last February, they saw in him a fresh-faced family man who could reassure the party’s traditional rural mainland base and solidify the party’s growing hold on MacDonald’s Cape Breton home turf. Perhaps most importantly, however, they chose MacDonald because they believed his youth, good looks and energy would be the magic elixir that would break the NDP’s electoral stranglehold on metro Halifax and help win the majority government that had eluded MacDonald’s predecessor, John Hamm, in 2003.
Everyone has a theory about how it all went so wrong so quickly and completely. But no one doubts that it did. Even the venerable, loyal and almost always articulate Gerry Doucet—once an equally ambitious young Tory cabinet minister from rural Cape Breton who came within a whisper of winning the Tory leadership back in the seventies and who now serves as one of MacDonald’s key backroom mentors—stumbles when he tries to find an explanation. "There was a lot of pure… How will I say this?…" He stops, considers. He finally gives up. "It’s true Rodney’s performance was rated more highly during the time before the election," he says.
Even that less than ringing endorsement is not universally shared. After he was elected to the legislature in 1999, MacDonald immediately joined John Hamm’s first cabinet, less for any demonstrated ability than for the simple expedient that he was then the only living, breathing Conservative MLA from Cape Breton. Over the next seven years, MacDonald served without great distinction in three different, second-tier cabinet posts. His only accomplishment of note—replacing the arm’s-length Nova Scotia Arts Council with a politically appointed granting agency—was a negative, and a harbinger of the kind of back-to-the-future patronage administration he would ultimately run.
When John Hamm announced his retirement last fall, MacDonald’s name was not at the top of anyone’s list of potential successors—except perhaps his own. Not that the rest of us should have underestimated that. As his cousin Glenn Graham, who grew up with Rodney, explains: "When he sets his mind on something, those who know him, I think, say to themselves, ‘Don’t doubt this guy; he’ll probably accomplish it.’"
Perhaps just as key to the eventual success of his candidacy is MacDonald’s personal charm, which has always been far more obvious in small, informal groups than in official public settings. "Rodney’s personality shines through when he’s in a room in a meet-and-greet situation," suggests Glenn Graham.
In the lead-up to the leadership convention, the most important room may have been the Tory caucus room. "Among the backbenchers," points out Brian Flinn, the Daily News’s veteran legislature reporter, "Rodney was always one of their favourite cabinet ministers." That helped make perennial backbenchers like Brooke Taylor and Bill Dooks—and their constituency-level followers—early supporters of his leadership bid.
One by one, as the more logical contenders dropped out, MacDonald became the only member of Hamm’s caucus left in the race. By the time he officially announced for the leadership in early November 2005, he had the formal support of eight MLAs, including three cabinet ministers.
At the convention, he completed his apparent out-of-nowhere surprise victory by defeating Halifax insurance executive Bill Black 1,263 votes to 855 on the second ballot, instantly transforming himself not only into his party’s leader but also the province’s 26th premier since Confederation and the freshest, newest and youngest face among Canada’s current crop of political leaders.
The hard political reality, however, is more complicated. Although he ultimately prevailed, MacDonald came within 12 first-ballot votes of being an also-ran conve
ntion footnote. And therein lies a tale that may not only explain his initial success but also tell you much about his troubles today.
Early on in the leadership campaign’s delegate-selection process, MacDonald’s supporters in the Bedford constituency approached Bill Black’s organizers, offering to cut a deal. Instead of running a full slate of 40 candidates to vie with each other to become convention delegates, they would each run half that number and then support the other’s candidates in order to squeeze out would-be delegates for the third candidate, former finance minister Neil LeBlanc. At that time, LeBlanc was considered by most observers to be the front runner.
It worked. MacDonald and Black split most of the delegates with just one LeBlanc supporter making the list.
Predictably, the LeBlanc camp cried foul. His campaign co-chair told reporters she was "shocked" by the effort to "undermine an open and honest delegate-selection process."
"Oh please," retorted one of MacDonald’s key Bedford supporters, a regional Mazda executive named Heather Foley Melvin. Foley Melvin’s husband was widely credited with engineering the coup. "Do we look that mean?" she asked a reporter.
If not mean, certainly smart. When the first-ballot votes were counted, MacDonald was on top with 789 votes, Black was second with 742 and LeBlanc—who trailed Black by 12 votes—was forced to drop out of the race before the second ballot.
If it hadn’t been for the gang-up in Bedford, the positions of LeBlanc and Black would almost certainly have been reversed, and the likelihood—as even backroom strategists like Doucet concede—is that LeBlanc would have beaten MacDonald in a two-way race.
Though Black, a plain-speaking businessman, had brought many new Tories into his campaign, he was not well known or even well liked among traditional party regulars who saw him as too Halifax and too… well, liberal on too many issues like Sunday shopping. Which meant he had little hope of picking up new supporters on a second ballot.
On the other hand, LeBlanc—a bred-in-the-bone Tory but also a widely respected former finance minister who’d been the first in a generation to balance the province’s books—would likely have brought many of Black’s urban supporters to his side for the final ballot.
In the end, of course, the what-ifs and could-have-beens mattered less than the fact that Rodney MacDonald had won.
And that Heather Foley Melvin had helped him do it.
In one of his first acts as premier-in-waiting, MacDonald appointed Foley Melvin, a former party president who’d served with him as the provincial co-chair of the 2004 federal Tory election campaign committee, as his new chief of staff.
In her first public act, she showed she wasn’t quite ready for political prime time. During an early post-convention scrum, when a reporter attempted to ask what the new premier would do about a recent cabinet decision to give a loan to a company that was doing business with Development Minister Ernie Fage, Foley Melvin tried to cut off the discussion. "We’ve got lots of briefings and things to catch up on," she announced and attempted to extricate MacDonald from the throng.
To his credit, MacDonald didn’t go along. "I’ll take that one," he said. But then, instead of putting some political distance between himself and Fage’s obvious conflict of interest, MacDonald expressed his support for a minister who had supported him during the leadership.
And, in the process, showed that he wasn’t quite up to his new job either.
Until very recently, Rodney MacDonald had made a political habit of being in the right place at the right time. Take his decision to seek the local Progressive Conservative banner in Inverness in the 1999 election, for example. For generations, as Rankin MacDonald, the editor of the Inverness Oran, puts it, "you could have run a dog as a Liberal in Inverness and gotten elected." But by the end of the twentieth century, Inverness was in serious economic decline and, after 30 years of electing older, status quo Liberal MLAs who promised much and delivered little, voters decided it was time to take a chance on the earnest, affable political neophyte who was not yet out of his twenties.
Rodney was already well known, and liked, in the community—as a "hard-working, grinding, clutch" player on the Strait Pirates hockey team, as a teacher, as a musician, as a coach, as a volunteer. But people in the community saw more than that, says Rankin MacDonald. "There have always been two sides to Rodney—the nice guy, ‘hell of a fiddler,’ but also the serious, single-minded young man, like his father, who you knew would do whatever he said he would. And the thing is, he delivered."
He did. Twelve million dollars to replace a falling-apart bridge in Margaree so many Liberal MLAs and MPs had promised and failed to fix over the years. Another $4 million to clean up unsightly mine tailings that made Inverness "look like hell." And sidewalks, lots of sidewalks. Rodney was a good constituency politician; he knew how to get things done.
There is, of course, a difference between a good constituency politician who knows how to get sidewalks built—or manipulate the delegate selection process in Bedford, or find ways to reward his supporters—and the political leader of a whole province.
Despite his down-home accomplishments as an MLA, Rankin MacDonald admits even he was "a bit" surprised when MacDonald announced for the leadership last fall. But he knew better than to under-estimate him. In February, just before the convention, he remembers the candidate and an aide stopping by for an interview. "I asked him if he thought he had a serious chance and he said, ‘I’m winning this.’ He turned to his aide and said, ‘I’m going to be premier.’"
The last book Rodney MacDonald read for pleasure was John Hawkins’ 1969 biography The Life and Times of Angus L, a breezy, partisan account of the career of legendary Nova Scotia politician Angus L. MacDonald, who squeezed in two stints as premier—1933-1940 and 1945-54—between wartime service as Canada’s minister of defence.
"He was a native son of Inverness County," Rodney tells me proudly, "and it was interesting to see how he progressed."
Angus L., of course, was a Liberal native son. So is Allan J. MacEachen, Inverness County’s other most famous politician who won eight straight federal election campaigns from the 1960s to the 1980s and served in the cabinets of three Liberal prime ministers. Intriguingly, MacEachen is related to MacDonald on his mother’s side.
So how did Rodney end up a Tory?
He says his father, a municipal councillor for 18 years, was a "strong conservative, and that influenced me." Glenn Graham remembers "travelling to gigs with [Rodney] and we’d be chatting about politics—believe me, he’s worn the blue stripes all along!" But Rodney’s brand of conservatism has always seemed to have been more about what he calls "helping out"—which often translates into old-fashioned political patronage—than ideology. "Call me a red Tory," he suggests. While he says he "learned the value of a buck" growing up and believes Conservatives are best suited to managing the economy, he is quick to add, "I’m a believer in social assistance too… I was on the board of the credit union movement." He pauses. "Being a PC in Mabou is different than in other places."
His own formative political experiences included a week in Ottawa in 1990 at the Ottawa Forum for Young Canadians while he was still in high school. "There were rumours during that week that [Lucien] Bouchard was going to quit [Brian Mulroney’s] government… It was all about the politics of the day. I loved it." During his years a
t St. FX, he also did his requisite stint as a member of the campus PC Youth club. He concedes he was only "somewhat" involved in political issues then ("I enjoyed university," he offers obliquely), and can’t remember whether the big issue for his university’s PC group was "Meech Lake or Charlottetown—one of them."
Big political ideas have never been Rodney MacDonald’s long suit.
"I wouldn’t equate him with the great orators like Angus L.," allows Rankin MacDonald. "But he’s the kind of guy you want in the trenches. He’ll work his ass off for you."
"Does he have an overall vision like, say, Diefenbaker?" Gerry Doucet answers my question with a question of his own, which he then answers himself. "The answer would be no. But he does have the fire. He’s an indefatigable worker. And, you know, vision… is pretty nebulous. We had successful (Conservative) politicians in Ontario for 40 years who were bland—the more bland, the more successful. I’m a student of Stanfield myself," he says of the uncharismatic but successful Nova Scotia premier in whose cabinet he served. "He used to remind us all the time that the best politics is good government."
Which may turn out to be Rodney’s real problem.
Some Tories will tell you that becoming premier by winning a party leadership convention instead of earning the job in a general election is at the heart of Rodney MacDonald’s calamitous free-fall first year.
"It isn’t easy succeeding yourself," explains longtime Conservative Ross Haynes. Indeed the electoral track record of provincial politicians who’ve won the leadership of a governing party—from Henry Hicks to GI Smith to Donald Cameron to Russell MacLellan—-has been uniformly disastrous. "Unlike 1999, when Dr. Hamm took over from the Liberals and had a clean slate to work with, Rodney was going back to lead a cabinet he was part of, a government that had a track record he couldn’t escape from."
It was a mixed record. And it got worse almost immediately after MacDonald took over.
Two days after MacDonald’s it-was-a-cabinet-decision defence of Fage in the post-convention scrum, the economic development minister resigned, admitting— without explaining—that he’d been in a conflict of interest when the government handed out a $250,000 interest-free loan to a company leasing farm land from his family. MacDonald was no more forthcoming about the details behind the resignation of Fage, who also, and perhaps not coincidentally, happened to have been one of the key caucus supporters of MacDonald’s leadership bid. The conflict-of-interest issue and MacDonald’s refusal to distance himself from Fage—he reappointed him to cabinet after the election—has turned into an albatross around the neck of his supposed new-face administration.
More telling, MacDonald’s handling of the Fage scandal quickly began to fit into an all-too familiar pattern of corruption and patronage in Nova Scotia politics. In the few months between his lavish, $25,000 cabinet swearing-in ceremony—"which instantly undercut the fiscal prudence part of the Tory ‘brand’ under Hamm, which was the one thing that had been working for the party," says Brian Flinn—and the announcement of his first general election as premier, MacDonald roamed the province, gripping and grinning for the cameras like an over-the-top, out-of-control John Buchanan. A million bucks for the province’s libraries, another million for the Abilities Foundation, $1.8 million for hog farmers, $200,000 for a roof for the Black Cultural Centre, $250,000 for a fibre optic network for Kentville, even $5,000 for the Dartmouth Business Commission so it could scatter outdoor ashtrays around downtown.
It got even more blatant—and crass—after MacDonald called a general election for June 13.
The Tories ran an awful campaign. MacDonald was a wooden wind-up-doll caricature of a politician, mouthing little more than pre-programmed, I-am-proud, our-families-first, our-home-our-families-our-future, I-am-so-proud platitudes, no matter what the question or occasion.
Even today, however, MacDonald is quick to defend that approach. "I know what some people say," he told me that afternoon in the Multipurpose Room, "but I like to stay on message. When people ask me the same question, my response is going to be the same."
But, says Brian Flinn, "that habit of answering every question in a formulaic way, giving the same stock answers over and over, makes him seem like he’s not familiar with the details of an issue, that he’s not comfortable explaining himself."
In the end, MacDonald and his message managers managed to squeak back into office with a minority government only because the Liberals, under Francis MacKenzie, ran an even more abysmal campaign, and because many conservative rural Nova Scotians still couldn’t quite bring themselves to vote for even the blandly reassuring NDP of Darrell Dexter.
For Rodney MacDonald, it seemed things couldn’t get much worse. And then they did.
Cue Heather Foley Melvin.
The formal announcement came just 10 days after the votes had been tallied and the truth revealed—Rodney MacDonald, who’d been chosen specifically because party members believed he could be the Moses to lead them to their long-hoped-for electoral breakthrough in Halifax and win back their elusive majority government, had failed on both counts.
"Premier Rodney MacDonald announced two senior staff appointments today," began the official announcement, which was both neutrally worded and carefully timed for release late on a Friday afternoon in order to achieve minimum public impact while sending a clear message to anyone who read press releases as political tea leaves.
What the premier had done, in effect, was to fire Foley Melvin, who hadn’t worked out as his chief of staff, and replace her with Bob Chisholm, a former executive assistant to senior cabinet minister Angus MacIsaac who, in the words of Tory insider Haynes, was one of those savvy "grey hairs" the premier needed to get his government back on track.
If the announcement had stopped with Chisholm’s hiring and Foley Melvin’s firing, it might have been dismissed as little more than another inning in the endless game of political insider baseball. But then MacDonald, as he is too often wont to do, kept going like a mad Energizer bunny. "Current chief of staff Heather Foley Melvin," the release continued, "will assume new duties as chief administrative officer for the establishment of Conserve Nova Scotia…"
Foley Melvin was being rewarded with a patronage plum: within the course of a one-hour private meeting with the premier, she’d been fired and then immediately hired as the boss of an important new energy conservation agency that didn’t exist, and for which she had no obvious qualifications. And, oh yes, she would get to keep her $130,000 salary, not to mention the perk of at least nine month’s severance pay should she get fired down the road from this job too.
Instead of sending a clear message that the premier had learned from the election results, the Foley Melvin patronage appointment created what Flinn calls "an instant public controversy and confirmed all the worst fears people had about the government."
To make matters worse for a government that still has to figure out a way to win back urban voters before the next election, naming a political hack to what should have been an important conservation position also undermined MacDonald’s efforts to appear environmentally conscious and concerned.
To make that worse worst, the controversy over Foley Melvin’s appointment was just the beginning of an even worse slip-slide into disaster political summer for MacDonald.
After attempting to put his finger in the dyke of Sunday shopping by creating discrimi
natory regulations that got his government laughed out of court, MacDonald suddenly and completely reversed field, tearing down the shopping-hours dyke completely, a decision that—in the short term at least—made the government look like it had no direction of its own.
Its handling of gas pricing was no better. Reluctantly pushed into introducing price regulation by the NDP, the government launched its price-setting program during the July 1st holiday weekend when prices traditionally spike anyway, meaning it got blamed for higher gasoline prices throughout the volatile summer season. By the time prices settled down and consumers became used to the price certainty regulation brought, the Tories—now under pressure from the Liberals—had already committed to review their whole regulation scheme.
If voters began to get the impression this summer that no one was minding the store, well… no one was.
On August 7, it became clear why. "Premier Rodney Out Of Matrimonial Home," reported Frank magazine in a cover story that not only confirmed the premier and his wife of 12 years had unexpectedly and suddenly separated but also quoted Lori-Ann saying, in response to a question about what had happened to prompt the split: "Nothing happened in my house."
It was not lost on anyone that the Tories had run their entire election campaign on the now spectacularly ironic slogan, "Our Families, Our Future, Our Home," and had employed Lori-Ann and their eight-year-old son Ryan as family-friendly props at all manner of campaign photo opportunities.
The news—and the unmistakable hint in Lori-Ann’s comment that her husband may have been guilty of adultery—sparked a media feeding frenzy. At one point, more than two dozen reporters swarmed the premier after a routine cabinet meeting, all looking for the comment MacDonald refused to make. Understandable as that may have been, it meant the story and attendant internet gossip and water-cooler speculation was left out there to fester and ferment, unchecked. MacDonald was a serial adulterer. Lori-Ann caught him with another woman. The premier’s living in his parents’ basement…
It went on for nearly a week before MacDonald finally publicly confirmed that he and his wife had separated, and asked everyone to leave him alone. "Private matters should be dealt with privately and personally," he said.
But by then it was too late. The damage had been done.
What were his advisers thinking, I asked Ross Haynes? "You’re assuming there was a ‘they’ calling the shots, or even offering advice," he replied. "I’m not so sure that’s true."
Gerry Doucet certainly wasn’t among those asked for advice. At one point, Frank speculated that Doucet’s divorced daughter might even have been "the other woman," a suggestion she denied to the magazine.
"If he’d asked me for advice," Doucet tells me later, "I’ve no idea what I would have told him. But I don’t think there’s any question he handled it badly."
He did. Having already failed to make the hoped-for breakthrough into metro Halifax in the election, his personal problems could now threaten to undermine even his party’s rock-ribbed support in rural Nova Scotia, where family values still matter and where his marriage meltdown so soon after a campaign built around those values was greeted like a personal betrayal by some of his supporters. In fact, one public opinion poll late in the summer showed that MacDonald’s personal popularity had sunk like a stone—down nine percentage points from 36 percent during the election to just 27 percent in late August. Even the province’s unnamed "next Liberal leader," who won’t be selected until next year, polled 15 percent.
By the end of the summer, the question had morphed from whether Rodney could win the next election to whether he could survive the fall session of the legislature.
He will. The Daily News’s Brian Flinn, in fact, now believes the Tory free fall may finally have bottomed out and that the next major public opinion poll, due in December, will show MacDonald has stopped bleeding voters. "Which means he has—at minimum—until the spring [after the Liberals choose a leader], and probably more like 18 months to turn things around."
"Have they recovered?" Flinn repeats my question, considers. "They’ve changed. They’re not as direction-less as they were a couple of months ago. They seem more decisive now." He points to the Tories’ recent announcements of university tuition cuts and its decision to get out of the Sunday shopping regulation business completely as signs of a new, more proactive approach that may ultimately help them in Metro where those sorts of issues resonate.
And yet, Flinn agrees, MacDonald’s government still often seems more desperate to appear decisive than to be decisive.
In late September, for example, MacDonald short-circuited complex, still ongoing negotiations among the province, Ottawa, New Brunswick and Bay Ferries Ltd. to keep the Saint John–Digby ferry service afloat and announced, without consulting any of its negotiating partners, that Nova Scotia would invest $2 million in the project. The province’s press release left federal officials scrambling and Bay Ferries officials insisting they hadn’t agreed to anything. It turned out that MacDonald had gotten wind of a planned photo-op trip by Liberal politicians that day aboard the ferry, during which they intended to press for government help to keep the service operating, and simply decided to preempt their publicity plans to make his government —and himself—appear decisive.
Last week, the Tories introduced seemingly progressive legislation to recognize midwives, but the bill was so hastily drafted and incomplete the health minister couldn’t even say if midwifery would now be a publicly insured service or where the money would come from to administer the new service.
Rankin MacDonald, the Oran editor, says some people in his part of the province think Rodney is doing a much better job than he’s given credit for and that the Halifax media, specifically the Herald, "has a vendetta against him because he’s from Cape Breton. They’d rather see someone from Halifax in the job." The Oran editor himself doesn’t go that far. In fact, he is quick to admit Rodney hasn’t "found his legs yet."
But he doesn’t believe it’s too late for him to find them. "He has to find a couple of issues that he can sell, not just in rural areas but in Metro, and put his own brand on them." MacDonald thinks for a moment. "And he’s got to show people the other side of him. All they’ve seen so far is the very serious side of him. He has to show he has a humourous side too, and that he’s a smart guy—you don’t have to be Pierre Elliott Trudeau to be a smart politician—and let people get to know him. If he could only mix those different parts of his personality together, he’d have a better brew."
And maybe even that elusive majority government.
Brian Flinn isn’t so sure. "Do the math," he suggests. The Liberals, who will choose a new leader next year, "aren’t likely to lose more seats than they did under [former leader] Francis MacKenzie. So that means Rodney still has to find a way to penetrate Metro without losing other seats elsewhere if he’s going to win a majority. And with the NDP as solid as they are in Metro, I just don’t know how he can do that."
If he doesn’t, of course, the reality is that Rodney MacDonald, the boy who would be premier, might not only not get the majority he so desperately wants but he could also very easily lose power to the NDP. And lose the job he wanted so badly.
If any of this worries Rodney MacDonald, he doesn’t show it. Back in the Multipurpose Room, he’s as upbeat—and on message—as ever. Though he still won’t discuss the state of his private li
fe, there have been reports that he and his wife are attempting to reconcile.
He concedes he’s had his political problems and that his first year has not all gone the way that he hoped. "But it takes time," he tells me. "Nova Scotians want to get to know you. And that takes time."
On the one hand, he should have the time. He’s only 34. But on the other hand, political life is unforgiving if you lose—and anything short of a majority government next time around will seem like a loss to a party that chose him to lead it to that promised land.
We talk a bit about Angus L. MacDonald and his more than 20-year career as an elected politician. Do you want to stick around as long as Angus L., I ask?
He smiles. "I love politics," he says.
The still unanswered question is, does politics love Rodney MacDonald?
Back at the Your Energy Rebate press conference, Rodney MacDonald looks like he would prefer to be somewhere—anywhere—else but in the line of Paul Withers’ withering questions about his government’s pension deal with provincial health care workers. He looks as if he’s trying to remember that on-message message.
No wonder he’s having difficulties. Last week’s message was very different.
The question of what to do with a $90-million surplus in the employees’ pension fund had been the central issue in ongoing labour negotiations between the province’s Association of Health Organizations and its 6,300 health care workers. The employees’ unions claimed the money belonged to their members and should be used to improve their benefits; the hospitals claimed they had the right to use the surpluses to pay their contributions to the plan.
Until late last night, the provincial government had appeared to side with the hospitals. Last week, in fact, health minister Chris d’Entremont had told reporters the unions’ demands would cost the province $100 million in the first year of a new deal alone, threatening the sustainability of the entire health care system.
Which prompted the health care workers to announce plans to demonstrate at tonight’s official opening of the legislature, just two days before they would be in a legal strike position.
But then, at 2:30 this morning, the two sides had reached an unexpected, tentative deal on the pension issue. The union agreed that it would postpone strike action. But neither side would comment on the terms of the deal.
Which may explain why Paul Withers was demanding to know—given d’Entremont’s earlier predictions—how much the deal might cost taxpayers and what effect it would have on the system’s sustainability.
Which may explain too why Rodney MacDonald would have preferred even hostile Your Energy Rebate questions. At the microphone, he hummed and hawed.
Finally, Jamie Muir, the minister in charge of Service Nova Scotia, the government agency in charge of the rebate program, stepped in front of MacDonald like a secret service agent ready to take a bullet for the boss.
This is a press conference to answer questions about the energy rebate, he explained, so those are the only questions that will be entertained.
Rodney MacDonald’s government is still on message. But far off course for victory.
Stephen Kimber, the Maclean Hunter Professor of Journalism at King’s College, is The Coast’s senior features writer. His last cover story for The Coast, about Halifax police detective Tom Martin, was recently chosen by Harvard’s Nieman Narrative Digest for its "notable narrative" collection.
photo Scott Munn