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VIBERT: Nova Scotia Progressive Conservative leadership wars drawing to a close

Jim Vibert
Progressive Conservative convention-goers will endure a snout-full of blather about how the party will emerge united behind its new leader, but only time will tell if that’s even possible., writes Jim Vibert.

The big reveal is a week away; most of the votes have already been cast; one candidate’s team exudes confidence, but the others say, by their reckoning, the outcome remains very much in doubt.

The Nova Scotia Conservative leadership campaign has been long and rough. Deep fissures were carved into the Tory edifice, and more than a few longtime party insiders worry that the fault lines will remain and damage the Tories’ prospects in the next provincial election.

The new leader’s priorities will have to include trying to patch up the wounds opened over the past nine months.

Hundreds of Tories will gather next weekend for the leadership convention in Halifax, where the traditional smoke-filled rooms will be replaced by huddled wretches crowding around little mushroom-shaped posts in the ground.

Convention-goers will endure a snout-full of blather about how the party will emerge united behind its new leader. Only time will tell if that’s even possible.

Politicians, like most folks, are inclined to “dance with the one that brung ya,” as Ronald Reagan liked to say, when what this party needs is a leader that can build a team of rivals.

At the risk of inviting another packet of profanity-laced protestations, the great divide in the party lies between the front-runner Tim Houston (Pictou East) and three of the other four candidates.

The reasons for the animosity between Houston’s campaign and those of Cape Breton Regional Mayor Cecil Clarke, and Tory MLAs John Lohr (Kings North) and Elizabeth Smith-McCrossin (Cumberland North) are many but can be easily summarized.

Houston jumped into the leadership race early — too early by some estimates — and built up a lead that’s made him a necessary target. His campaign has been vilified for breaking the rules, using strong-arm tactics to intimidate party members and, perhaps the gravest sin of all in politics, arrogance.

Houston’s camp replies the rules infractions were the result of over-exuberance rather than malicious intent. They reject the charge that they’ve been heavy-handed, although allow that the behaviour of every supporter can’t be controlled. As for the arrogant label, they say they’re taking nothing for granted, but their confidence is plain to see.

Whoever wins, the Tories will emerge from the convention hip-deep in policy pronouncements, although Clarke has made clear that his platform is designed to serve as a starting point for party members to consider as they develop policy from the ground up.

He advocates returning health-care decision-making to the local level, proposes a multi-year plan to bring taxes in Nova Scotia down to the national average, and says the province needs a strong voice to oppose the federal government’s carbon tax and stand up for the province against Ottawa.

Smith-McCrossin offered a detailed plan of across-the-board personal and business tax cuts paid for by spending reductions spread throughout the government. She emphasizes her long experience on the front lines of health care, where she says solutions can be found but the health bureaucracies aren’t listening.

Lohr ran as the true conservative in the race and pledged to end the moratorium on onshore gas extraction — fracking. He’d allow wine and beer to be sold in grocery stores and was the first candidate to promise to ditch the Nova Scotia Health Authority and roll its functions into the Health Department.

Houston proposes a tax holiday for Nova Scotians age 25 and under, funding for chronic health conditions, a new department to focus on mental health and addictions and tighter controls on government spending.

Julie Chaisson ran unsuccessfully for the Conservatives in Chester St. Margaret’s in 2017 but has impressed the party rank and file during the leadership campaign. She’s remained above the nasty fray and focuses on revitalizing government and reducing taxes.

While the party brass aren’t telling, sources who should know say ballots have already been received from roughly half of the 11,600 party members eligible to vote.

Almost 8,000 new members joined the party during the leadership campaign, but experienced Tory politicos expect between 6,000 and 7,000 voters.

There are already rumblings about voting irregularities, so if a critical vote is close — the candidate with the lowest total is eliminated after each ballot until a winner emerges with over 50 per cent — this often-raucous leadership battle could end in a convention donnybrook.

Stay tuned, as they used to say.

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