Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil’s sudden decision to step away from politics has political observers speculating on a potential successor and how this person will position the province’s majority Liberal government.
Names such as former federal Liberal cabinet minister Scott Brison and Halifax Mayor Mike Savage have been floated. Savage, however, has already said he isn’t interested and is planning on running for mayor again this fall – a position confirmed Friday by his spokeswoman Shaune MacKinlay.
Lori Turnbull, political science professor at Dalhousie University, said Brison is an obvious candidate and she can’t imagine he isn’t fielding calls from people who want to see him run.
“Scott Brison is extremely experienced and extremely networked,” Turnbull said Friday. “He understands the federal scene and has been an ambassador for the province in Ottawa. I would think there would be a lot of people who would be interested in Brison’s candidacy.”
Brison, who served 22 years as the MP for the Nova Scotia riding of Kings-Hants, declined comment on his political future during a brief phone interview Friday.
“Right now I think we are all wanting to celebrate the premiership of Stephen McNeil, said Brison. “None of us expected his announcement yesterday and we are certainly thankful for his service.”
Turnbull said it’s also likely some of McNeil’s younger cabinet members, including Education Minister Zach Churchill and Business Minister Geoff MacLellan, could be interested.
“I would be surprised if at least one or two from that cadre didn’t put their names forward,” she said. “They’ve been on the inside, they can claim some responsibility for the government’s record and response to COVID and things like that. It would be continuity which people may value at a time like this.”
Michelle Coffin, who was McNeil’s first communications director after he won the Liberal leadership in 2007, said all of those people make sense as successors because of their name recognition.
Coffin said the new leader would also become premier and that could prove attractive to somebody like MacLellan, who narrowly won his Glace Bay riding in the 2017 provincial election. He is expected to be in a tough battle in the next election against NDP candidate John Morgan – the former mayor of the Cape Breton Regional Municipality.
“He is going to have a really hard fight in his own riding this time around,” said Coffin. “Having premier tied to his title would certainly help him.”
MacLellan did not reply to a request for interview Friday.
Coffin said it will be interesting to see in the coming months whether McNeil has a favourite from within cabinet, and whether he recedes into the background to let that person have more of the spotlight.
During his six years as premier, McNeil earned a reputation as an ardent fiscal conservative who used to joke that he was the best premier the Opposition Tories never had.
Coffin said she will be watching to see whether the party has the appetite for someone who will continue McNeil’s “right-of-centre” approach, or prefers someone more like Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who favours balancing the economy with the “wants and needs of citizens.”
“I think it’s safe to assume that not everyone in cabinet and not everyone in caucus is as right-leaning as the premier,” she said. “But it depends on where the membership wants to take the party.”
Turnbull doesn’t anticipate serious ideological changes for the Liberals but said it is possible a new leader’s priorities will be very different from McNeil’s.
“Whoever is going to be the premier is dealing with the COVID reality both in a public health and economic sense,” said Turnbull. “I can envision a scenario where a future Liberal leader would step a little to the left.”
McNeil sprung his decision to leave politics on the public and on his unsuspecting caucus Thursday, although he said he plans to stay on until the party chooses a new leader. When that will happen hasn’t been decided.
In a news release late Thursday, Nova Scotia Liberal party president Joseph Khoury said the provincial board would meet over the next few weeks to discuss its next steps including “the outlines of a formal leadership process.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 7, 2020.