Nova Scotia·Analysis

Why John Buchanan was an era-ending politician in Nova Scotia

The longtime premier's decisions still affect Nova Scotians on a daily basis, from every time we turn on a light to the many public buildings constructed under his watch.

He leaves a legacy as both a legendary political winner and a symbol of cronyism

According to a statement released by the provincial Progressive Conservative caucus, Buchanan died Thursday. He was 88. (CBC)

John Buchanan was an era-ending politician in Nova Scotia. There may have been others like him before, but none since.

The days of party dynasties ended with Buchanan and so too did pervasive patronage.

In government, he was rightly known a spender. Twenty-nine years after his departure from Nova Scotia politics, there are public buildings across the province adorned with plaques bearing the name of Premier John Buchanan. It was a time of new schools and hospitals.

His decision to use coal to generate electricity is with us every time we switch on a light.

The Michelin bill and why it matters

Arguably the most significant piece of legislation during Buchanan's time as a lawmaker came in his first term when his government passed the so-called Michelin Bill, which has helped keep the French tire maker union-free for 40 years.

The law required a union to sign up all three Michelin plants in Nova Scotia in order to unionize. Every union drive since the bill passed in 1979 has failed.

The law outraged organized labour, but four decades on the Michelin plants in Bridgewater, Granton and Waterville are still operating while much of Nova Scotia's industrial base long ago hollowed out.

With 3,200 employees, Michelin is the province's largest private-sector employer with exports to the U.S. valued at more than a billion dollars.

The legendary campaigner

John Buchanan is the last premier to win four majority governments in a row.  A feat his successors have not and may never repeat.

The wins were partly timing — three came as tides were running against the Liberals nationally. But he was also a superb campaigner in touch with the Nova Scotia sensibility.

His signature image was standing in Halifax's Armdale rotary after an election win with a "thank you" sign beside his wife Mavis, waving to passing commuters.

Buchanan served as the premier from 1978 to 1990, the fourth-longest serving premier in the province's history. (CBC)

His final victory in 1988 was an improbable comeback that cemented his legend as a political winner. It was also an election he may have been better off losing, at least in terms of his reputation.

Already beset by scandal, Buchanan personally pushed his party over the top by the force of his sunny personality — the campaign highlight was Buchanan singing the Cape Breton standard "Out on the Mira."

Less remembered, but just as typical, was the way the campaign started. He appointed a sitting New Democrat MLA to a judgeship and the Buchanan's Progressive Conservative party picked up the seat.

The darker side of the Buchanan government exploded in public view on June 13, 1990, when Michael Zareski, a former deputy minister of government, appeared before the legislature's Public Accounts Committee. Although no one realized it at the time, it was a day that would change Nova Scotia politics.

John Buchanan and his wife, Mavis, wave to Haligonians driving through the Armdale Rotary after an election win. (CBC)

In devastating testimony, Zareski detailed corruption and cronyism throughout the Buchanan government. More embarrassing revelations would ensue, including the existence of a secret trust fund that paid off Buchanan's debts while he was premier.

There were RCMP investigations. Buchanan was never charged, but others were. By then he was in the Senate, appointed there by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney to help pass the GST.

Buchanan was hardly the first to practise wholesale patronage in Nova Scotia. But he was the last. The era ended with him.

No premier since has returned to the days when friends of the government were so openly rewarded with jobs and contracts.

That too is a legacy of John Buchanan.

About the Author

Paul Withers

Reporter

Paul Withers is an award-winning journalist whose career started in the 1970s as a cartoonist. He has been covering Nova Scotia politics for more than 20 years.