Nova Scotia

N.S. Liberal Party issues scathing internal report on last year's provincial campaign

An internal party report into last summer's disastrous election results for the Liberal Party of Nova Scotia blames the loss on poor preparation, a badly organized campaign and a breakdown of trust between key participants.

Report recommends 'a complete overhaul' of the Liberal Party organization

Iain Rankin, the leader of the Liberal Party of Nova Scotia, speaks during a stop in July during the election campaign. (Robert Short/CBC)

A report commissioned by the Liberal Party of Nova Scotia into last summer's provincial election campaign is scathing in its criticism of the way the campaign was prepared and conducted, and calls for a "complete overhaul" of the party organization.

Released on Monday, the report blames the loss on the fact the party, which had been in power since 2013, was "ill-prepared for the campaign, despite having control over the timing."

Riding associations said they felt "alienated, neglected and disrespected," and first-time candidates "felt isolated, unsupported and unsure what was expected of them," the report concluded.

By contrast, the report called the successful Progressive Conservative effort, which secured that party a majority government, "an excellent campaign."

"They had a clear focus on the issue that mattered most to voters — health care — and they got a free ride on that," noted the report's authors, former senator Jim Cowan and one-time candidate Maura Ryan.

The 17-page review, titled Toward Renewal, is a synthesis of more than 140 emails, as well as conversations with candidates, party volunteers, and past leaders and campaign advisors. In all, more than 300 Liberal members contributed.

They painted a picture of a tight circle of people within the office of then-premier Iain Rankin running an "all top-down" campaign that drove the party from power into opposition through "missteps" and a "high stress" but lacklustre effort.

Rankin arrives at a campaign rally in Bedford, N.S., in August. (Michael Gorman/CBC)

According to the report, the effort was hobbled by the fact the campaign co-chairs, Dale Palmeter and Joanne Macrae, were the premier's principal secretary and chief of staff.

"Campaign chairs simultaneously held senior roles in the premier's office, leaving insufficient capacity to prepare for an election campaign," said the report. "This led to challenges in campaign planning and execution.

"Those who were involved on the central campaign team felt a deep sense of loss after the election.

"This raw emotion was still evident during the in-person interviews we conducted, where they shared their frustration that during the campaign it felt like no one was in charge which led to delayed decisions, disagreements, and a high stress level."

Liberals who took part in the review "suggested there was an apparent sense of arrogance, and an assumption that the party could coast to victory based on the government's past performance without having to offer a positive, consistent vision of what it intended to do in the future."

Platform problems

That was reflected, according to Liberals, in an unfocused platform released in dribs and drabs.

"Its late release allowed the opposition to establish the ballot question as health care, while the Liberals stayed focused on economic recovery," said the report.

"The first part of the campaign saw announcements and reannouncements on seemingly unrelated topics. Some announcements, such as vaccine passports and rent control, caught candidates by surprise." 

The leader's tour, a central part of any party campaign, was also a target for complaints. 

"The schedule changed, often at late notice, and drew scarce resources from local campaigns," according to the report. "The bus was often late. The leader was not given enough time to interact with voters at stops.

"Volunteers complained of unreasonable demands being made too late to carry them out. There was an undervaluing of community volunteers, who often felt treated as props for photos."

Those people also complained about "being treated poorly by tour staffers and members of the central campaign."

A plan by the previous Liberal government to sell Owls Head provincial park to a golf course developer was heavily criticized. (Submitted by Stephen Glazier)

Liberals also noted problems with the way issues were handled, starting even before the campaign launch. Those included the disclosure that Rankin had twice been charged with impaired driving when he was younger, the nomination process in the riding of Dartmouth South, where candidate Robyn Ingraham said she was dropped due to boudoir photos, and the Owls Head controversy involving the possible sale of Crown land.

"Even if polling suggested that none of these issues had an impact on voter intention, that is not what the candidates and those involved in local campaigns believed," the report said.

Rankin's performance also came up in discussions. He'd been premier less than six months after winning the Liberal leadership when he called the Aug. 17 election. Some wondered why he wasn't given more time to put his own stamp on the new Liberal government, and why he seemed so ill at ease on the campaign trail.

"A common theme was that the leader was not allowed to be himself; he lacked confidence, looked weak and defensive at times," said the report. "Liberal members felt he lacked passion and failed to inspire confidence in either Liberals or voters.

"Candidates suggested he relied too much on a small circle of advisers."

'Alienated, neglected, and disrespected'

Although the criticism is mostly levelled at the team Rankin carried into government from his leadership campaign, the report suggests the administration of the man he replaced as premier, Stephen McNeil, played a part in the defeat.

"A dominant theme was the lack of substantive communication with Liberals in recent years, resulting in ineffective election readiness," said the report.

Electoral district association presidents noted feeling "alienated, neglected, and disrespected."

The authors of the report make 19 recommendations including:

  • The immediate establishment of an election readiness committee.
  • The naming of campaign chairs at least 18 months ahead of the 2025 election date and they not be staff, especially senior staff within the leader's office.
  • Better communications between the central campaign team and candidates.
  • The complete platform be released before anyone is allowed to cast a ballot.

The report conclusion sums up the work ahead for the party in stark terms.

"What is required is nothing short of a complete overhaul of our party organization and the building of a new structure that reflects improved operations, where volunteers can feel welcome and where their talents will be recognized and appreciated."

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