After two terms as premier and 17 years as an elected official, Stephen McNeil has announced that he’s stepping down as leader of the province.
The unexpected news came in a press conference Thursday morning, before what reporters thought would be scrums with the premier and various ministers of his cabinet.
In a prepared speech, McNeil thanks his family and caucus for all their support during his time in office. He said he’s simply retiring because he’s “tired,” “it’s time,” and he believes that changes in leadership are important to political parties and government.
“It’s been hard, it’s been difficult, but it’s been a real privilege to do it,” said McNeil. “But now it’s time for someone else.”
McNeil was first elected in premier in October 2013, and was re-elected in 2017. He is the MLA for Annapolis.
McNeil said his pending resignation is a secret he’s been holding onto for months, initially wanting to have stepped down in the spring. That was before the COVID-19 pandemic struck Nova Scotia however, forcing him to reconsider his position.
“I recommitted to the job and my purpose here and I’m feeling comfortable with where we are,” he said of the new timing of the announcement.
“The party will need time to get somebody ready for the next election, so this seemed to be the appropriate time to do it.”
McNeil said he doesn’t know what his plans are after he retires from public office, but said he will continue to govern until the Nova Scotia Liberal Party calls a leadership contest, and a replacement is selected.
The announcement caught many off guard as the premier has previously said he expected to attempt a third term. He told reporters he only advised his own caucus of the decision to retire on Thursday morning.
In his speech, McNeil said he considers his key accomplishments to be promoting growth of the private sector, expanding trade into China, and keeping a handle on the cost of public sector wages. Among his most memorable career moments, he added, are cleaning up Boat Harbour, the apology and inquiry into the Nova Scotia Home for Coloured Children, and Canada’s first presumed consent organ donation policy as among his career highlights.
“I think 20 years from now, all of us will benefit from four-year-olds getting a new start in life and I’m proud just to have been in some small way part in that with this great team of people,” he said.
But his 17-year political career has not been without controversy — from the millions of taxpayer dollars spent on the non-operational CAT ferry from Yarmouth to Maine, to the widespread labour unrest created by his government’s decision to dissolve elected school boards.
“I think for the first five years I don’t think I had a session where there wasn’t some form of a protest, but that’s governing,” McNeil said with a smile.
Questioned by Global News on criticism of his government’s transparency, including his ministers’ use of personal email addresses to conduct official business, he accused media of buying into “a conversation” from the Opposition.
Despite their ideological and political differences, opposition leaders Gary Burrill of the Nova Scotia NDP and Tim Houston of the Nova Scotia PC Party thanked McNeil for his leadership and service as premier, touting him as a clear force to be reckoned with.
“However you look at it, Stephen McNeil has been a very substantial presence on the landscape of the contemporary history of our province,” said Burrill.
“I have always acknowledged him as a person of real ability and a singular focus and determination. That’s the primary thought I have today.”
“I think that the premier always did what he thought was in the best interests of Nova Scotians,” added Houston.
“I do believe that and I do give him credit for sticking to what he thought was right for Nova Scotians.”
In a Thursday afternoon news statement, P.E.I. Premier Dennis King also thanked McNeil for his service, calling him a “strong voice for his constituents” since 2007.
“We have a lot in common, both being from small towns and large families, values that we both use to guide our decision making in our respective provinces,” he wrote, in part. “I look forward to continuing to work with Premier McNeil in the coming months until a successor is chosen.”
Premier Blaine Higgs has also issued a statement following McNeil’s announcement.
“Since becoming the premier of New Brunswick, I have developed a strong working relationship with Stephen McNeil. We have had the opportunity to collaborate on a number of files that have impacted both of our provinces, including the COVID-19 pandemic,” Higgs said.
“During his 17 years as the MLA for Annapolis, and the past seven years as premier, he has demonstrated admirable leadership, particularly during difficult times such as following the tragic shooting that took place in Nova Scotia in April.”
Higgs said he’ll continue to work closely with McNeil in the months ahead until he officially steps away from public office.
With files from The Canadian Press.