Nova Scotia·Analysis

Amid infighting, Nova Scotia Liberals limp into annual general meeting

Liberals members are embarking on their second leadership campaign in as many years and elected members are still trying to find their footing in opposition and an issue that resonates with the public following last summer’s election loss.

With meetings set to begin Friday, turmoil surrounds the party

Nova Scotia Liberal Leader Iain Rankin will be one of the speakers during Friday's session of the party's annual general meeting. Liberals are gathering at a difficult time for the party. (Robert Short/CBC)

As the Nova Scotia Liberal Party hosts its first annual general meeting since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the party is light years away from where it was the last time Liberals gathered.

Party members are embarking on their second leadership campaign in as many years and elected members are still trying to find their footing in opposition and an issue that resonates with the public following last summer's election loss.

But instead of charting a path back from that stinging rebuke from voters, members are mired in a nasty, sometimes personal fight over whether the hybrid meetings they have planned for Friday and Saturday should even be taking place.

The infighting involving past and present board members, staff, volunteers and even former premier Stephen McNeil has created divisions and played out mostly behind the scenes until an orchestrated campaign pushed it into the public eye.

Internal emails illustrating the conflict, including how the party handled the theft of thousands of dollars by a former staffer and the subsequent recovery of the money, have been leaked to reporters by anonymous email accounts.

Calls to delay the AGM

Meanwhile, a movement billing itself as grassroots emerged with a website this week encouraging the delay of the annual general meeting (AGM).

Initially, people involved with that website refused to identify themselves to CBC News. Party volunteers Trish Maynard and Cameron MacKay later claimed credit as co-founders of the movement to postpone the meeting.

In an interview, MacKay insisted there are "dozens of like-minded Liberals" involved along with her and Maynard, but refused to identify anyone else.

MacKay said delaying the AGM is reasonable because people are feeling left in the dark. She said the meetings shouldn't happen until after the party selects a new leader in July.

"When we're giving money to a party and we don't realize there's an internal theft that we don't know of, we've lost a lot of confidence and trust," she said.

Potential party data theft

On Thursday, things reached a pitched level when the provincial party president publicly called on MacKay and Maynard to take down the website. Joseph Khoury said the party is also exploring potential legal action in response to what he calls a defamatory campaign and the potential theft of internal party data.

MacKay and Maynard's website includes a petition people can sign in favour of delaying the AGM. What most signatories didn't know was that their names and personal email addresses attached to a form message calling for the delay, could be blasted to a distribution list that includes hundreds of people, including reporters from multiple media outlets.

Khoury, who said the party is being flooded with complaints about the emails, said he believes the distribution list was at least partially assembled from data one or more former employees took after leaving their jobs.

He also said the party has evidence linking the cellphone number of former caucus and premier's office staffer Stephen Tobin to a Twitter account associated with MacKay and Maynard's website.

In an interview with CBC, Tobin said he supports the group's efforts but is not directly involved. He dismissed the suggestion he has anything to do with their social media and he confirmed he has nothing to do with the alleged removal of personal contact information from the party.

"Although I applaud the efforts of those taking a stand and coming forward, I have, and want, absolutely nothing to do with the Nova Scotia Liberal Party at this time," he said in an email.

'There has been no funny business'

MacKay told CBC their email list is a compilation of distribution lists from various party members, and that the website would remain up.

Despite accusations the board botched the handling of the theft and calls for board members to step down, Khoury said he and his colleagues have been effective and party business, including staff matters, have been "conducted with honesty and integrity."

"There has been no funny business," Khoury told CBC.

"The accusations are false. The fact is, that the party is in very good shape."

The problem is, many members appear unsure that that's the case.

Not many talking

More than 1,000 people have signed the petition. Some are concerned they are in the dark and need more information about what's been happening with the party behind the scenes.

CBC has for weeks talked with past and present Liberal staffers, party officials and MLAs, all of whom talked at length about their concerns with what's happening to the party, who's involved and speculating about what's really happening.

None will go on the record.

It's a far cry from where the party was last spring, just before calling the election when many Liberals believed they were poised to cruise to a third majority mandate. Now the party finds itself in search of a new leader and a way to regain lost political ground in the midst of what appears to be a divisive internal struggle.

With files from Jean Laroche

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