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‘Opportunity lost’: Observers note lack of diversity in N.S. Liberal leadership race

Click to play video: '‘Lost opportunity’: Observers note lack of diversity in NS Liberal leadership race'
‘Lost opportunity’: Observers note lack of diversity in NS Liberal leadership race
With just two days left to enter the contest to replace Stephen McNeil as leader of the Nova Scotia Liberal Party, some political observers are concerned about the lack of diversity on the ticket. As Elizabeth McSheffrey reports, some believe COVID-19 and high registration fees may have played a role, but it won’t save the party from a possible perception problem. – Oct 7, 2020

With just two days left to enter the contest to become Nova Scotia’s next Liberal leader, some former politicians and political observers are concerned about the lack of diversity in the race.

To date, only two candidates have declared — Iain Rankin and Labi Kousoulis — both of whom are sitting MLAs with recent cabinet jobs, and Caucasian.

Randy Delorey, who resigned from his position as health minister on Wednesday, is expected to join the race on Thursday.

“You lose that opportunity to bring a vast array of experiences to a very powerful table,” said former Liberal cabinet minister Joanne Bernard, about a ticket that lacks both women and people of colour.

READ MORE: Nova Scotia Liberal leadership gets second candidate ahead of Friday deadline

Bernard, Nova Scotia’s first openly queer MLA, announced intentions to enter the race in August and become the province’s first female premier. In the end, she cited the $60,000 registration fee and other fundraising requirements as too high a barrier to overcome while balancing a full-time job.

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She said she will support the male candidate whose values best align with hers, but called the lack of diversity — particularly female candidates — an “opportunity lost.”

“I would love in the next general election to see gender parity in female candidates in the Liberal Party, and if we can’t reach that, we should be reaching for as many women and people of colour, and all kinds of diversity,” Bernard said.

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Labi Kousoulis steps down as minister, announces candidacy for premier’s spot

READ MORE: Kousoulis first candidate to join Nova Scotia Liberal leadership race

Yvonne Atwell, one of Nova Scotia’s first Black MLAs, said she isn’t surprised by the lack of diversity on the ticket, but believes that will change in time if political parties take more initiative.

“I think every party could do more in terms of actively recruiting more people for the party, starting with employing people so they get a good sense of what it feels like to be part of government,” she explained.

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“You cannot be involved in something if you don’t really understand the process, because it feels very difficult and hard… I think the parties can help with that as much as they can.”

Parties could start, she added, by dropping enormous fundraising requirements that disproportionately challenge people of colour and youth.

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Percy Paris, a former NDP cabinet minister, said the lack of diverse candidates “doesn’t sit well” with him.

While representing Waverley-Fall River-Beaver Bank between 2006 and 2013, he said conversations about racism and the African Nova Scotian community were met with contempt. He said it’s incumbent on Nova Scotia’s elected officials to create a welcoming environment where people of colour feel they belong.

“In our society, we’ve got great diversity and I think that should be mirrored with respect to our elected officials,” he told Global News.

Without that diversity, he said governments create policies from “a perspective that’s dominantly white male,” and fail to consider the impacts that will have on people of colour.

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The Nova Scotia Liberal Party declined an interview request for this story. In a written statement, however, it said its Liberal association presidents have been reaching out and “having conversations with those who may not otherwise see themselves in the process.”

“(Recruitment) happens on an ongoing basis,” wrote party president Joseph Khoury, “and we are very focused on recruiting a diverse group of candidates for the next election.”

“The Nova Scotia Liberal Party will help our next leader and Premier build on this government’s record of diversity and inclusion.”

READ MORE: N.S. appoints team to lead justice reform, drive anti-racist policy change in Nova Scotia

Dalhousie University political science professor Lori Turnbull said the restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic — preventing big outdoor events, door-knocking and other campaign tactics — likely had an impact on the number of candidates in the race, and their diversity.

Amassing support and funds may have been too large of a hurdle for a newcomer to politics, she explained, and too big of a career risk as well.

But a perception problem could still arise for the Nova Scotia Liberals, Turnbull said, if they are unable to attract women and people of colour as prospective leaders.

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Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil announces his resignation

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“I think parties are in a situation now, where if they do not have any diversity on their ticket they’ll have to explain, and they should explain that,” she said.

“There’s a lot of people who are looking at this ticket and thinking that they don’t see themselves in there, and there’s a lot of people who are looking at this ticket who are thinking this is a continuation of how politics have generally been practiced in Nova Scotia.”

McNeil announced his resignation from public office in August, after 17 years as an elected official.

The deadline to enter the leadership race is Friday, and the party will elect its new leader on Feb. 6, 2021.

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