Nova Scotia Government Falls

For days, Nova Scotia Tory Leader John Hamm withstood the pressure.

Nova Scotia Government Falls

For days, Nova Scotia Tory Leader John Hamm withstood the pressure. Talk-show callers, provincial New Democrats, the gung-ho MLAs in his own caucus all said the same thing: vote against Nova Scotia's red-ink budget, topple Russell MACLELLAN's Liberal minority government and trigger a summer election. What gave Hamm pause were the other voices - pollsters, political strategists and more cautious Tories - urging him to prop up the Liberals rather than take his chances on an election with his Conservatives running third in the polls. But by last Thursday he had made up his mind - as he stood in Halifax's historic Province House and announced that "my caucus and I cannot in good conscience vote for this budget."

The suspense finally over, campaign organizers immediately unleashed their troops for the July 27 election. It promises to be a tight race. The Liberals and New Democrats were deadlocked in the legislature with 19 seats apiece - and have been running neck and neck in the latest opinion polls with 34- and 36-per-cent support respectively, compared with 23 per cent for the Tories. But Hamm's party, which had 13 seats, is feeling feisty, thanks to Bernard Lord's Conservative upset in New Brunswick on June 7 when his party steamrolled over that province's ruling Liberals. "This is going to be a horse race," declared Agar Adamson, a political science professor at Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S.

Last week, many analysts said the Liberals had engineered their own defeat just 15 months after the last election, in hopes of winning a majority with a campaign highlighting their chosen issue - health care. The main component of the budget was a mammoth health-investment fund, to be achieved by borrowing $600 million over the next three years. The Liberals were roundly criticized for financial sleight-of-hand for projecting a $1.5-million surplus for 1999-2000 - but not including the health expenditure as part of their normal operating budget. Now, Grit strategists clearly welcome running a campaign that focuses on keeping hospital beds open and replacing obsolete medical equipment, while painting the NDP and Tories as political opportunists more interested in power than the health of Nova Scotians.

The NDP and Tories will try to convince voters that they, rather than the Liberals, have credibility as the champions of health care. Voting against the budget may make that hard. But the challengers have a clear advantage over the Liberals in one regard - the number of federal MPs parachuting in to help during the weeks ahead. The NDP and Tories shut out the Liberals in Nova Scotia by winning every federal seat during the 1997 election. Now, their provincial counterparts are hoping to recapture some of that magic.

Maclean's July 1, 1999