Nova Scotia

No signs of controversy as N.S. Liberals meet to plan for future

If the foundation of the Nova Scotia Liberal Party is shaky, someone forgot to tell participants in this weekend’s annual general meeting. Almost 700 people registered for the hybrid event.

Party held first annual general meeting since 2019 this weekend

Nova Scotia Liberal MLA Kelly Regan speaks during a panel with her caucus colleagues as party of the party's annual general meeting on Saturday. (Michael Gorman/CBC)

If the foundation of the Nova Scotia Liberal Party is shaky, someone forgot to tell participants in this weekend's annual general meeting.

Almost 700 people registered for the hybrid event, with the lion's share participating virtually due to public health protocols.

The theme was rebuilding and renewal. Missing from conversations about the party's future was controversy.

"This party and what we stand for, it's just too important to let division set in," Liberal Leader Iain Rankin said during his speech Friday night.

"So find it in yourselves to put the party and what we stand for first."

Concerns that went unvoiced

Rankin's comments were at least partly a veiled reference to recent private divisions that became very public.

A website launched at the beginning of the week, and a corresponding petition, called for the meetings to be delayed out of concerns about how the party has been operated and how it dealt with an alleged theft of party funds that were later recovered.

While the website's two organizers claimed to represent a large group of grassroots Liberals with more than 1,000 names on the petition, that group appeared to be absent from the weekend.

Throughout the event there were chances for members to ask questions and offer feedback. Those who did talked about a variety of issues, but none of it had to do with the website, petition or how the board handled the alleged theft.

The party's two leadership candidates said that's in line with what they've been hearing while touring the province and working the phones.

Leadership candidates focused on reform

Yarmouth MLA Zach Churchill and Preston MLA Angela Simmonds are vying to replace Rankin, who announced in January he'd be stepping down as leader.

Other than a single phone call, Simmonds said the people she's talking to are more focused on what she is offering as a candidate and ways to energize the party and prepare a plan to help return to government.

Simmonds said she endorses the recommendations of a recent report following that last election that called for an overhaul of the party, including how it operates and communicates with members.

"This is what I've been hearing on the road, is that people want to make sure that their voices are validated," Simmonds told reporters on Saturday.

"People feel like they have not been heard or respected and so this [report] is a blessing to me."

Need to be constructive, united

One of the report's co-authors, former senator Jim Cowan, is chairing Simmonds's campaign.

Given the controversy heading into the weekend, Churchill said he was expecting it to come up. But like Simmonds, he said it's not something he was hearing about as he meets and calls people.

It's normal for there to be disagreements and frustrations within a party following a loss, said Churchill. What matters, he said, is the response.

He was struck by the fact the AGM has the most people registered of any he's attended since first becoming an MLA in 2010.

"How we deal with those disagreements and differences is really important and we have to wrap our arms around each other and deal with these disagreements in a constructive way that makes us stronger and more united and better organized and smarter," he told reporters.

Artificial polls

Appearing at his first and last annual meeting as party leader, Rankin was introspective as he stressed the need for people to come together. He agreed with the report's findings that the party was not ready at the local level heading into last summer's provincial election.

Rankin said he thinks the polls the party looked at as he and officials made the decision last summer to call the election were inflated because of the government's management of the pandemic since 2020.

"Before COVID hit, our polls were not anywhere near that," he told reporters.

The former premier said if he were to do it again, he'd have allowed more time to get candidates in place and ready before the election call.