I recently did something I've never done before — I attended a Conservative convention. Oh, the things I do for you, dear CBC audience.
Nova Scotia's Progressive Conservatives gathered in a Halifax hotel for three days of pep talks, policy, and party business. Like a car driver who has moved up from a clunker to something faster, the Tories are figuring out where their new Official Opposition status can take them, and how fast.
Every party has a story it tells itself about its past — just like all of us, I suppose — and there are a few parts of the story Nova Scotia's PCs are going to have to figure out before they can convincingly contend for power.
Issues PCs need to figure out
The first is to be realistic about what happened in the 2013 election. The PCs get cranky when anyone points out that they won only one more seat and 2 per cent more of the vote than they won in 2009. The Tories much prefer the narrative of momentum, and their climb from seven seats before the election to 11.
But they're the Official Opposition only because they held their vote while the NDP collapsed, not because Nova Scotians heard the clarion call of Toryism. The Tories haven't yet figured out what to tell themselves about the byelection losses of Antigonish in 2009 and Yarmouth in 2010 — seats they didn't win back in 2013 — or Karen Casey's defection to the Liberals following Jamie Baillie's election as PC leader.
They also haven't yet figured out what went wrong under Rodney MacDonald's leadership (2006-09). They're very comfortable, on the other hand, with the John Hamm part of the story (1999-2006). The good Dr. Hamm, sitting in the front row, received a standing ovation as soon as his name was mentioned in Baillie's keynote speech. MacDonald's name wasn't mentioned at all, and he wasn't there. MacDonald won a bruising three-way leadership contest in 2006, and I get the sense the party still hasn’t gotten over the fissures that resulted.
The third problem for Nova Scotia's Progressive Conservatives is their relationship with Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party of Canada. Technically it's not the same party. The provincial party, for example, has held on to the word "Progressive" long after it was dropped at the national level. But voters definitely don't distinguish between the two. The provincial party doesn't know whether to hug the national party, or push it away. They're trying to do both —depending on the issue — and it's not working.
Keith Bain, as good a constituency MLA as there ever was, lost his Victoria–The Lakes seat in the 2013 election because of Employment Insurance changes "north of Smokey" — and EI is, of course, a federal program over which Keith had absolutely no control.
Tory MLAs Alfie Macleod and Eddie Orrell have been beating the drum on veterans’ office closures, but they seem at times uncertain how best to protest a decision of their own federal party. It was ironic that the featured guest speaker at the Tory convention was Tony Clement, who as Chair of the Treasury Board would have been as responsible as anyone for the decision to close those veterans’ offices. He was ritually cheered by the party faithful.
PCs have a lot going for them
Nova Scotia's Progressive Conservatives have a leader, Baillie, who is smart and articulate and who won the endorsement of 95 per cent of convention delegates. (The other five per cent were confused by an awkwardly-worded question). So the PCs have unity.
The party's finances are in good shape. Assuming Elections Nova Scotia signs off on the party's election returns, the PCs will be debt-free, which is a noteworthy accomplishment so soon after an election. So the PCs have money, or will in time for the next election.
They have talented new MLAs, including Karla MacFarlane in Pictou West and Tim Houston in Pictou East. John Lohr and Larry Harrison, the other two newbies, are nontraditional politicians with depth. So the PCs have talent.
But until Nova Scotia’s Progressive Conservatives come to terms with the difficult parts of their own story — especially what went wrong under MacDonald, and their relationship with the federal party — they're going to have a hard time getting Nova Scotians to buy into the story of a Progressive Conservative return to power.