Nova Scotia

N.S. Liberal leadership candidates eye the finish line

Zach Churchill and Angela Simmonds are putting the battery life of their phones to the test.

Party will elect its new leader at an event July 9

Angela Simmonds, left, and Zach Churchill are vying to be the next leader of the Nova Scotia Liberal Party. (Nova Scotia Liberal Party)

Zach Churchill and Angela Simmonds are putting the battery life of their phones to the test.

The two Liberal MLAs are spending the last days of their party's leadership campaign talking to as many members as they can to shore up support and making one last pitch to any undecided voters ahead of the July 9 decision at a convention in Halifax.

"If I need to meet people where they're at, I'm going to go," Simmonds, the MLA for Preston, said during a recent interview.

"That's really what it's about right now."

A year ago, most Liberals in Nova Scotia probably could not have imagined holding a leadership convention this summer. The party was riding high in public opinion polls and newly minted leader and premier Iain Rankin seemed poised to lead his team to a third consecutive election win.

Voters had other ideas.

With Rankin announcing earlier this year that he would step down as leader following the election defeat at the hands of the Progressive Conservatives, Simmonds and Churchill, the MLA for Yarmouth, emerged as the candidates to replace him.

Challenging time

They're vying to lead at a challenging time for the party.

Along with the election loss, a report stemming from that result pointed to a disconnect between party officials in Halifax and volunteers and members in electoral districts around the province. It called for a complete overhaul.

Churchill said his tours of the province to meet with party members make clear the work that needs to be done by the next leader.

"I think we've got big challenges on our plate here in the province, and societally, and the more brain power we can bring to the table to build our war chest of ideas to deal with the big issues of the day, the stronger we're going to be as a party," he said during a recent interview.

Simmonds, meanwhile, lists party renewal and achieving the recommendations of the campaign review as a key focus if she becomes leader.

Many issues

There are many issues for the party to champion, she said, but that only works if the party is strong and people feel like their voices are being heard.

"I'm not suggesting we can't do two things at once. I can walk and chew gum. But what I'm suggesting is we can't continue to build this house, this party, if we are not addressing the cracks we have now."

Both candidates have attributes that their supporters see as selling points and their opponents view as liabilities. Ironically, it mostly centres on their respective political experience.

Simmonds was elected for the first time last summer. Initially in the leadership campaign, she bristled at the idea that she lacks experience compared to Churchill.

More recently, however, Simmonds has embraced that as a strength. In the final debate of the campaign she even referred to the fact some people thought former premier Stephen McNeil wasn't ready before he won the party's leadership.

"During the last 10 years I am not ashamed that I have not been in the legislature, because I have gotten a law degree, I've had an opportunity to own my own business and have raised three children," she said in an interview.

"Out of those experiences, I think will also resonate with every Nova Scotian in this province, rather than some."

Churchill, meanwhile, has been an MLA since 2010.

During that time, he's established himself as an effective communicator and carried major cabinet portfolios, including education and health.

Experience cuts both ways

But with that experience comes a direct connection to a former government. That government, although successful at the ballot box, was also polarizing in the way it dealt with organized labour and what would become the province's housing crisis, and was viewed as having problems with transparency.

He doesn't shy away from any of it.

"You have to make decisions that are right and sometimes the public is going to disagree with you on those," said Churchill.

"But the fact of the matter is … we are facing a … drastically different situation than we did during our years in government. When we started, people couldn't sell their houses — now people can't buy them. Inflation was low, wages were high — the opposite is happening now."

Churchill said the continued struggles of the health-care system needs to be a key focus for the party in the lead-up to the next election.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michael Gorman is a reporter in Nova Scotia whose coverage areas include Province House, rural communities, and health care. Contact him with story ideas at michael.gorman@cbc.ca

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