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VIBERT: Will McNeil run again?

Jim Vibert
Jim Vibert - SaltWire Network

Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil loves his job and takes some joy in the progress Nova Scotians are making by working together, so why wouldn’t he run again?

That slightly saccharine and entirely rhetorical question came in response to a query made of the premier’s office amid a perceived quickening in the perpetual swirl of rumours that McNeil will ride off into the political sunset at some advantageous point before the next provincial election.

An advantageous point would be determined, in part, through a complex series of political calculations to divine the precise moment when a new Liberal leader should be chosen to allow Nova Scotians enough time to get to know McNeil’s successor, but not so much time that they could take a disliking to him or her before that election, probably in 2021.

Just last month the premier turned 54, so he’s still a young man by any charitable measure, with more than enough energy and passion for a job whose only real boss is the collective wisdom and whim of the people.

When his government was re-elected last year, McNeil broke a three-decades-long curse and became the first premier to achieve back-to-back majorities since 1988, that being the last of John Buchanan’s four terms in government. Seven men occupied the premier’s office between those two.

So, McNeil has nothing to prove politically, although he knows a three-peat would put him in rarefied air.

Angus L. Macdonald was the last Liberal premier to win three or more elections, and Angus L. occupies a deified perch among Nova Scotian Grits.

Angus L. is revered, among other things, for paving the province’s roads and bringing power to every community, and McNeil’s keen sense of history must give him occasional pause to reflect on his own legacy as premier.

He is a true believer in the virtue of a government that pays as it goes and his first term was marked — or marred — by the inevitable battles a Nova Scotian government seems condemned to wage in order to balance the budget.

With the province’s books in the black — a condition that can change virtually in the blink of an eye — McNeil has settled in to the kind of comfortable incremental change you’d expect most Nova Scotians to appreciate. Now, if only health and education would co-operate.

In health care, the premier understands the best he can hope for is stability. Merging nine district health authorities into one provincial beast seemed like a good idea at the time, and likely still does.

But it added uncertainty that at times bordered on chaos to an already fragile system and, for health providers and consumers, it substituted a remote bureaucracy for an approachable, local one.

In education, after a running feud with teachers that may or may not be over, McNeil’s government ushered in sweeping changes that eliminated school boards, consolidated power in the minister’s office, and began to pursue the ambitious objectives set by the commission on inclusion.

But McNeil points to pre-primary, which he intends to extend until it is available to every four-year-old kid in the province, as the most important change he made in education, and time may prove him right.

McNeil’s government is moving ahead to replace the nearly derelict Victoria General Hospital complex, kick-started a well-financed program to extend broadband internet to every nook and cranny, and McNeil himself is leading both regional and national efforts to lower or eliminate barriers to trade between provinces.

As he enters his sixth year in the office, McNeil’s Liberals remain perched atop the polls in a position familiar to them since 2013, and the premier’s personal popularity remains steady.

When McNeil scours his front benches for a possible successor, his eye likely falls on Business Minister Geoff MacLellan or possibly Community Services Minister Kelly Regan, and he knows there are powerful forces in the party that would advance the cause of HRM Mayor Michael Savage.

But there is no obvious, dynamic, young heir-apparent waiting in the wings to pick up the Liberal mantle and take on the provincial Tories’ youthful new leader Tim Houston.

Stephen McNeil is a competitive guy. He’s vanquished an NDP premier and beat the Conservatives led by Jamie Baillie. He may want to stick around and add another Tory leader to the list.

Plus, word is he loves the job.

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