Analysis

Remember when the PCs had an iron grip on power? Neither can many party members

Progressive Conservatives are holding their annual general meeting this weekend — eager to regain the success of yesteryear. Party brass just hope the focus is on the future, not on Jamie Baillie and the allegation of sexual harassment.

As Tory faithful meet in Halifax, party brass hope focus is on the future and not Jamie Baillie

The Queen Mother waves to admirers outside Province House in 1979 while being escorted by Nova Scotia premier John Buchanan. (Denis Paquin/Canadian Press)

If all had gone according to plan, this weekend Nova Scotia Progressive Conservatives would have been able to properly thank Jamie Baillie for picking up the pieces after the party's disastrous 2009 election, and then guiding them through two subsequent campaigns. 

The spotlight at the party's annual general meeting at the Westin hotel in downtown Halifax would have then shifted to what is now the largest field of candidates to ever run in a PC leadership contest.

If not for the sexual harassment allegation against Baillie, it would have been a tidy end to his seven-year run as leader and would generate some excitement for a party sorely in need of some.

The PCs haven't had a big win to celebrate since John Hamm earned the party its majority government in 1999.

Subsequent back-to-back minority mandates allowed the party to maintain a grip on government until 2009, but it also allowed the opposition parties to lay the ground for their eventual victories.

NDP leader Darrell Dexter on election night in 2009. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

NDP leader Darrell Dexter's election win marked a breakthrough for the New Democrats, but just four years later voters turned to Stephen McNeil's Liberals rather than hand the Tories a do-over.

The past 25 years have been a struggle for the PCs — a party that once had an iron grip on power.

Since the end of John Buchanan's reign in 1990, PC MLAs have spent more time on the opposition benches than in government. That's a far cry from the party's glory years when Buchanan and Robert Stanfield each racked up four successive majority mandates.

Few in the party still carry the sense of invincibility felt by those who can recall those heady election-night victories; instead, many PC members wonder what it will take for the party to regain government.

Premier John Hamm, left, and former premier John Buchanan enjoy the hotdogs at a campaign picnic in Halifax before the 2003 election that reduced the PCs to a minority government. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Dexter's NDP rode to power by championing the rights of elderly couples threatened by the possibility of losing their houses and life-long possessions to pay for their nursing-home care. The McNeil Liberals rode a popular anti-Nova Scotia Power sentiment by promising to break the utility's monopoly and bring down electricity rates.

Baillie and his team struggled and failed to find a similar populist cause to ride to victory. In fact, Baillie is the first PC leader in 73 years not to become premier. Fred Blois was the last politician to lead the party only in opposition. He was replaced after the 1945 election, in which the party was shut out.

Which is why this weekend's gathering may be a turning point for the PCs.

Unlike in 2010, when Baillie was acclaimed leader because no one else seemed to want the job, there are already five people lined up to run for the party's top job: MLAs Tim Houston, John Lohr and Elizabeth Smith-McCrossin, as well as Cape Breton Regional Mayor Cecil Clarke and Seaport Farmers' Market executive director Julie Chiasson.

Jamie Baillie talks with reporters after announcing his bid for the leadership of Nova Scotia's Progressive Conservative Party in 2010. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

The date, location and rules governing the leadership convention are expected to be released Sunday.

The co-chair of the coming leadership convention, MLA Chris d'Entremont, says having five candidates declare their interest in the job is "awesome." He attributes the interest in the leader's job to growing discontent with the McNeil Liberals that opens the door to the possibility the Tories could regain power in the next election.

"The fact we could win is creating a fair bit more interest," he said.

The sexual harassment allegation against Baillie in December involving a young female staffer sent party brass scrambling, first to investigate and subsequently demand his resignation, then to refocus this weekend's AGM on leadership hopefuls rather than Baillie's work taking the PCs from third place to Official Opposition.

Although caucus members are satisfied the party handled the sexual harassment allegation properly, it's unclear how rank-and-file conservatives feel and that could lead to uncomfortable discussions this weekend.

The party plans to deal with that by having party president Tara Miller address what one party official called "the elephant in the room" first thing Friday evening.

She said she has been talking to party members about the investigation and expects to continue to have those discussions this weekend.

"These last few weeks, no disguising it, they have been difficult for our entire Tory family," she said. "They are pleased we acted."

The hope is, after Friday, the focus will shift to the leadership hopefuls, who will all be given 10 minutes to address the membership. It will be the first time party members will be able to compare the contenders and contrast their pitches.

"I think we're going to be in great shape moving forward out of this weekend," said Miller.

About the Author

Jean Laroche

Reporter

Jean Laroche has been a CBC reporter for 32 years. He's been covering Nova Scotia politics since 1995 and has been at Province House longer than any sitting member.

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