Nova Scotia

Questions raised about whether former N.S. premier was lobbying for new golf course

Nova Scotia NDP Leader Claudia Chender says former PC premier Rodney MacDonald should be listed on the provincial registry of lobbyists for contacting politicians about a proposed golf course at West Mabou Beach Provincial Park.

NDP Leader Claudia Chender says Rodney MacDonald should be listed on the provincial registry of lobbyists

Former Nova Scotia premier Rodney MacDonald says he was not lobbying when he contacted provincial politicians about a proposed golf course for West Mabou Beach Provincial Park. (CBC)

Former Nova Scotia premier Rodney MacDonald says he is not lobbying the provincial government on behalf of a private golf course developer.

He is not listed on the provincial registry of lobbyists, but he has contacted all three party leaders in the legislature about a proposed 18-hole course on protected lands at West Mabou Beach Provincial Park.

The suggestion from Cabot Cape Breton has sparked opposition from environmentalists and some area residents, but MacDonald said he has simply met with local groups on behalf of a developer and given provincial politicians a heads-up that a proposal may be coming. 

"My first priority is to make sure that proper consultations happen with the community and a report goes back to Cabot," he said. "Anything beyond that, if I needed to register for the lobbyist registration, I would certainly do so," he said.

NDP Leader Claudia Chender said MacDonald sent politicians an email with a six-page plan showing what the proposed course could look like.

She was asked by reporters whether that amounts to lobbying.

Rules include grey area

"While I didn't speak to him personally, I think when a former premier reaches out and gives you a plan about something that they are clearly ... in favour of, it certainly raises the question," Chender said.

Wayne MacKay, professor emeritus at Dalhousie University's Schulich School of Law, said there's a bit of a grey area under provincial rules.

He said the question revolves around two things: whether MacDonald is being paid by Cabot Cape Breton to contact politicians and exactly what he's saying to them.

"It seems to be a rather fine line," MacKay said. "The money point is relatively clear, but beyond that there is some subtlety about exactly what kind of conduct is actually lobbying and what is merely expressing an opinion of some kind."

MacDonald said he is being paid by Cabot Cape Breton to gauge public opinion in Mabou about the possibility of a new course being built and to advise the developer on the results.

"It's important for the community and the citizens of Mabou to have their say and then from there, Cabot will decide on what their proposal looks like," MacDonald said.

"Whether they put a proposal forward or not, that's up to them. I'm simply providing the information that I'm hearing from the community to them and from there, it will be determined what happens after that."

Dalhousie law professor Wayne MacKay says there's nothing wrong with somebody trying to influence public policy, as long as it's done in the right way. (Submitted by Wayne MacKay)

MacKay said the registry could be clearer about its rules, but the question of lobbying also might be one of public perception.

"I think in the public's mind, they see this as a case of somebody with an in and with power and influence trying to influence a policy and again, there's nothing wrong with that as long as it's done in the right way," he said.

MacDonald, who is president of the Gaelic College at St. Anns, Victoria County, said his employer is well aware of his outside activities as an independent professional and he has no concerns that those activities will reflect badly on the college.

In 2018, the provincial registry of lobbyists came under fire after allegations that former prime minister Jean Chrétien had lobbied the former Liberal government about a proposed container terminal for Sydney.

A drawing shows where a proposed golf course could be built on the coast in a provincial park.
Developers circulated this map of the park in their proposal outlining where the 18-hole golf course could go, but environmentalists say the lands are home to rare plants, lichens and birds. (Cabot Cape Breton)

MacKay said legislation around the registry calls for a $25,000 penalty for a first offence and a $100,000 fine for a second.

"On the surface at least, there does appear to be a penalty, but whether in fact there is much done in terms of really trying to scrutinize what is and what is not lobbying and whether or not people are following the law, I guess that'd be a good question to ask the registry itself," he said.

A spokesman for the registry confirmed that MacDonald was not on the list, but declined an interview request and declined to say whether the former premier's activities amounted to lobbying.

MacDonald should be on the lobbyist registry, Chender said.

Nova Scotia NDP Leader Claudia Chender says the provincial registry of lobbyists needs to be reformed to provide more clarity around who is meeting with government officials. (Jeorge Sadi/CBC)

"I think that we want to make sure that when people, particularly prominent community people advancing financial and corporate interests, are reaching out to leaders of parties, to the premier in particular, that we have a record of that," Chender said.

"We ... for years have had a lot of secrecy around the premier's office. We don't see a schedule, we don't know who he's meeting with and we know that the lobbyist registry needs reform."

In 2019, then opposition leader Tim Houston said the registry needed an overhaul

However, he told reporters recently that he did not think MacDonald's actions amounted to lobbying.

Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston says MacDonald was not lobbying, but the government will look at a proposal for a golf course at West Mabou Beach if one is submitted. (CBC)

Houston said people talk to him about private interests all the time and listening is part of his job, but there is no formal application or request for a new golf course.

"If something comes before the government, we'll look at it through the lens that we would normally look at things, but to speculate on it ... there's lots of things to speculate on. That's why I try to reserve my energy to [deal with] the number of real issues that are actually on the desk."

Liberal Leader Zach Churchill said MacDonald called him about the proposal, but was not lobbying.

"I didn't have any concerns about that."

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tom Ayers

Reporter/Editor

Tom Ayers has been a reporter and editor for 36 years. He has spent half of them covering Cape Breton and Nova Scotia stories. You can reach him at tom.ayers@cbc.ca.

With files from Jean Laroche

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