Nova Scotia’s Opposition Progressive Conservatives are looking for a fresh start this weekend with a leadership convention they hope will propel them into the government benches after the next provincial election.
The convention begins Friday with speeches from five candidates – three men and two women – after a campaign race that started when former party leader Jamie Baillie announced he would step down as leader in November, then resigned in January amid unspecified allegations of inappropriate behaviour.
The candidates include perceived front-runner and Tory caucus member Tim Houston, Cape Breton Regional Municipality Mayor Cecil Clarke, caucus members John Lohr and Elizabeth Smith-McCrossin, and Julie Chaisson, executive director of the Halifax Seaport Market.
All five have spent months travelling the province to sign up party members, a process that saw more than 11,600 people purchase memberships.
“That’s tremendous to have that level of response, particularly in this era of disengagement with politics,” Nova Scotia PC party president Tara Miller said in an interview earlier this week.
Miller said the membership surge was the result of people responding to the messages of the candidates, and also to an optimistic feeling within party ranks.
“I think another reason that people are so engaged is because there … is a feeling that this leader will be the next premier of Nova Scotia,” said Miller.
Lori Turnbull, a political scientist at Dalhousie University in Halifax, said that kind of bullishness isn’t just partisan spin.
Turnbull said the Tories are well aware that voters in other provinces – most recently Quebec and Ontario – have dumped their Liberal governments in favour of right-leaning parties, and it appears New Brunswickers are poised to do the same in the days ahead.
In Nova Scotia, Liberal Premier Stephen McNeil has won two consecutive majority governments, but Turnbull says the Liberals’ current majority is “as small as you can get.”
“Just by way of typical voting patterns, it’s possible – maybe even probable – that the Progressive Conservatives are electing the next premier of the province this weekend,” said Turnbull. “So I think it matters who they pick because that person will set the tone for the party.”
Houston, who represents Pictou East, launched his campaign a month ahead of his rivals and has touted himself as best positioned to take on the Liberals in the next election.
However, his style and perceived status as front-runner has made him the main target for the other candidates.
Tom Urbaniak, a political scientist at Cape Breton University, said he was surprised Houston’s campaign didn’t make more overtures to the other candidates in a contest that will be decided by a combination of a ranked ballot and weighted ridings.
Each of the province’s 51 constituencies will count for 100 points, allocated according to the proportion of votes each candidate receives from that riding.
“I don’t see a lot of room to grow beyond Tim Houston’s base, so one wonders if they are feeling pretty confident that they will be close to that 50 per cent mark with people’s first-choice picks,” Urbaniak said. “If they are too far off, then it gets really interesting.”
Urbaniak said the overarching narrative of the campaign has been a two-way race between Houston and Clarke, who is a former cabinet minister under premiers John Hamm and Rodney MacDonald.
“That narrative is going to influence … how (party members) designate their second and third choices (on their ranked ballots),” Urbaniak said. “That’s especially if they are very concerned about a particular person winning – they will vote strategically.”
Clarke has campaigned as the party’s experienced hand and as the person who is best equipped to take over as premier.
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Smith-McCrossin, a former nurse and small-business owner, has championed private sector job growth and has come out in favour of a zero tax-rate for small business, while Chaisson has positioned herself as a party outsider and voice for change.
Lohr has gained attention by staking ground on the party’s far right, professing his support for oil and gas exploration, including hydraulic fracturing, which is under a moratorium in Nova Scotia.
He also caused a stir after speaking out against the removal of statues of Sir John A. Macdonald elsewhere in the country. Lohr also claimed there were paid protesters at a rally last July in Pictou, N.S., against the planned discharge of treated pulp mill effluent into the Northumberland Strait.
Despite the media attention, neither Urbaniak nor Turnbull see Lohr’s pronouncements as a sign of populist growth within the party or the province as a whole.
“I don’t see the same kind of populist support here as say for someone like Doug Ford (in Ontario),” said Turnbull. “You need a brand to sell it and I don’t really see the same thing here in terms of a person or the brand resonating.”