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JIM VIBERT: Tories go 5-0 in byelections since ’17

Former Progressive Conservative MLA Eddie Orrell waves a broom to represent the Tory sweep in three Nova Scotia byelections on Tuesday: Sydney River-Mira-Louisbourg, Northside-Westmount and Argyle-Barrington.
Former Progressive Conservative MLA Eddie Orrell waves a broom to represent the Tory sweep in three Nova Scotia byelections on Tuesday: Sydney River-Mira-Louisbourg, Northside-Westmount and Argyle-Barrington. - SaltWire File Photo

Since the last general election — in May 2017 — returned a majority Liberal government, Nova Scotia Tories are a perfect 5 and 0 in provincial byelections.

While that might suggest that the political tide has turned and the Progressive Conservatives, under their still relatively new leader, Tim Houston, are in the catbird seat, the PC winning streak isn’t quite as impressive as it first appears.

The Tories held four of those five seats before MLA resignations, for a variety of reasons, forced the byelections. The party’s one gain came in June when Conservative Steve Craig edged out New Democrat Lara Fawthrop in Sackville-Cobequid, an NDP stronghold since 1984.

Tuesday, PC candidates won the seats vacated by long-serving Tory MLAs — Chris d’Entremont, Alfie MacLeod and Eddie Orrell — who threw in their lot with the national Conservatives and are candidates in the federal election that will be called any day.

While it’s a bit of a mug’s game to try to discern trends from byelections, where local issues drive votes and turnout tends to be lower than in general elections, the governing Liberals can’t avoid the fact that, absent a significant shift in Nova Scotians’ negative perceptions of the health system, their days in government are likely numbered.

The state of the province’s health system is far and away the biggest issue for Nova Scotians, and recent efforts by Premier Stephen McNeil and his government to relieve people’s anxieties don’t appear to be having much of an effect.

If the Liberals are looking for a silver lining, they might grasp onto the fact that their candidates finished second in both Cape Breton byelections, as well as in Argyle-Barrington.

Close observers of Nova Scotia politics will recall that on the same day he called the three byelections, Premier McNeil travelled to Cape Breton, where two of those seats were up for grabs, and made a flurry of announcements about the redevelopment of health facilities in the area.

Even with those announcements, and an unexpected change of candidates for the Tories in Northside-Westmount, the PCs held the seat. Murray Ryan will represent the riding and join the PC caucus for the fall session of the legislature, which opens on Sept. 26.

Ryan’s win was complicated when the party’s initial candidate, Danny Laffin, ran as an independent, effectively splitting the PC vote. Laffin was removed as the Conservative candidate for failure to comply with the party’s full disclosure rules.

Still, the Tories held the seat, as they did in nearby Sydney River-Myra-Louisbourg, where 32-year-old Brian Comer won, albeit not as convincingly as MacLeod had in 2017.

If the Liberals are looking for a silver lining, they might grasp onto the fact that their candidates finished second in both Cape Breton byelections, as well as in Argyle-Barrington. Liberal candidates in all three ridings earned the same, and in Sydney River-Myra-Louisbourg a larger share of the vote as Liberals won back in 2017.

While that may seem cold comfort for McNeil’s government, it will come as a bit of a relief after the earlier Sackville byelection, where the Liberal vote virtually collapsed. The Liberals only took 10 per cent of the vote in the suburban Halifax riding.

Tory Colton LeBlanc, a 27-year-old paramedic from Quinan, easily won Argyle-Barrington on the province’s southern tip. There again, the Liberals dared to hope for an upset based on the government’s steadfast commitment to the Yarmouth-Maine ferry.

The Conservatives have doggedly questioned the deal between the province and the ferry’s operator, Bay Ferries. Those questions are politically repurposed by the Grits as the PCs opposing the ferry altogether.

But with the boat sitting idle in Yarmouth all summer due to delays on the U.S. side, the political value of the ferry for the Liberals was obviously diminished.

Houston was predictably upbeat after his party’s sweep and is eager to get back into the legislature where he said the government can’t hide from the issues that concern Nova Scotians. Health care, Houston said, tops the list.

He’s also looking ahead to another byelection on the near horizon, in Truro-Bible Hill, where former NDP MLA Lenore Zann will soon vacate the seat to run federally for the Liberals.

Premier McNeil took the outcome in stride, noting all three ridings were long-time Tory strongholds, and therefore don’t predict much of anything. In the strong showing by Liberal candidates, he saw an indication that the government has Nova Scotia headed in the right direction.

The Liberals hold a majority in the legislature, with 27 seats. The PCs have 17 and the NDP five. Two seats are currently held by independents, Zann, and Alana Peon who was ejected from the PC caucus recently for failing to comply with an order to make her constituency office more accessible.

Nova Scotians aren’t likely to vote in a general election again until 2021, so the Liberals have two or more years to fashion a political recovery. Their ability to do so depends almost entirely on their ability to bring stability to — and regain Nova Scotians’ confidence in — the health system.

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