MacLellan New NS Premier

For nearly two decades, Liberal MP Russell MacLellan toiled away in relative obscurity in Ottawa, perpetually overshadowed by two fellow Cape Bretoners, Allan J. MacEachen and David Dingwall.

MacLellan New NS Premier

For nearly two decades, Liberal MP Russell MacLellan toiled away in relative obscurity in Ottawa, perpetually overshadowed by two fellow Cape Bretoners, Allan J. MacEachen and David Dingwall. But last Saturday, the 57-year-old MacLellan stepped firmly into the political limelight as he defeated three other contenders to win the leadership of the NOVA SCOTIA Liberal party - and became the province's 24th premier. Even as he savored his victory, though, MacLellan was acutely aware of the bigger challenge that lies ahead - turning around the fortunes of the deeply unpopular Liberal government before a provincial election that must be held by May, 1998. As MacLellan told Liberal delegates at Halifax's Metro Convention Centre: "We need the courage to listen, the courage to change, the courage to lead."

It was not supposed to be this way. Just over four years ago, the Nova Scotia Liberals, under newly minted leader John Savage, trounced a scandal-ridden Conservative government, winning 40 of the legislature's 52 seats. But within months of taking over after more than 14 years of Tory rule, the Savage government began to stumble. Having inherited a $471-million deficit, the Liberals launched an austerity program that included painful cuts to the province's health and education systems. They balanced the books - a slim $4.3-million budget surplus is predicted for the 1997-1998 fiscal year - but won few hearts.

The Liberals also championed the widely despised Harmonized Sales Tax. The new 15-per-cent levy, which took effect on April 1 in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Newfoundland, represented a blending of the federal Goods and Services Tax and provincial sales taxes. While the overall tax rate went down on big ticket items like cars and computers, many residents were angered because the HST applied to such basic items as haircuts and home heating fuel that had previously been exempt from provincial sales taxes.

Even more damaging to party morale was Savage's decision to largely break with the time-honored Nova Scotia tradition of political patronage. In response, disgruntled Liberals mounted a strong challenge to Savage through a 1995 leadership review. Savage survived - but as public support for his government continued to plummet, calls for his resignation emerged once again. On March 20, the premier finally obliged, setting the stage for last weekend's leadership contest. One clear sign of how far the Liberals have fallen came in a poll conducted in May by Halifax-based Corporate Research Associates. It showed the New Democrats - traditionally a blip on Atlantic Canada's electoral radar screen - enjoying the support of 33 per cent of decided voters, compared with 28 per cent for the Tories and 26 per cent for the Liberals. Even more ominous was the June 2 federal election, in which the Liberals lost all of their 11 seats in Nova Scotia.

If provincial Liberals saw the leadership race as a chance to rehabilitate the party's image, those hopes were quickly dashed. The first declared candidate and presumed front-runner was Bernie Boudreau, who served as finance minister and later as minister of health under Savage. But throughout the campaign, Boudreau came under fierce attack from his three rivals - MacLellan, Liberal backbencher Bruce Holland and former Liberal MP Roseanne Skoke. All of them, in effect, ran against the record of the party they hoped to lead - with Holland going so far as to declare that the Liberals were "on the road to oblivion" unless they radically mended their ways.

MacLellan was usually more circumspect. He praised the government's efforts to tame the fiscal deficit, but chided it for not doing enough to address what he called the "social deficit" caused by cutbacks and joblessness. At the same time, he threatened to tear up a recently negotiated toll deal on the proposed $3-billion Sable Island gas pipeline project unless the province was promised more benefits. Through it all, he remained deliberately fuzzy about the details. In an interview with Maclean's last week, MacLellan declined to say how much sweeter the Sable Island proposal must become, adding that "I'll know a good deal when I see one." Similarly, he would not say where he intends to find the money to improve the province's health-care and school systems. Such elusiveness, says Acadia University political scientist Agar Adamson, has its advantages: it means that MacLellan is taking the helm unfettered by too many campaign promises. But it also poses an obvious dilemma. "What," says Adamson, "does he stand for?"

For most Canadians - and many Nova Scotians, for that matter - there is an even more fundamental question: who is Russell MacLellan anyway? An avid golfer who also holds a black belt in karate, MacLellan is married to Clare Macneil, a family court judge in his home town of Sydney. The couple have two children, Sarah, 15, and Matthew, 13. Fluently bilingual, MacLellan has a keen interest in the national unity debate. But if Ottawa is looking for an ally in its bid to recognize Quebec as a distinct society, MacLellan is not their man. He voted against the Meech Lake accord and believes that Canadians have spoken firmly against granting Quebec special powers. Such concerns, though, are for another day. For the time being - and for obvious reasons - MacLellan's sights are set much closer to home.

Maclean's July 21, 1997