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JIM VIBERT: N.S. Liberal leadership candidates begin to stake out ground

The three candidates vying to become the next leader of the Nova Scotia Liberal Party are, from left, Randy Delorey, Labi Kousoulis and Iain Rankin. - The Chronicle Herald / File
The three candidates vying to become the next leader of the Nova Scotia Liberal Party are, from left, Randy Delorey, Labi Kousoulis and Iain Rankin. - The Chronicle Herald / File

The first few weeks of the Nova Scotia Liberal leadership race passed by like the metaphorical duck that glides serenely across the pond, as — just below the surface — the duck and the three leadership campaigns are paddling like mad.

Meanwhile, it’s a safe bet that many Nova Scotian Liberals would prefer to be fighting a general election, under Premier Stephen McNeil’s leadership, rather than an internal battle to find his successor.

Incumbent governments in New Brunswick, British Columbia and Saskatchewan rode the Covid-bounce to easy re-election. Nova Scotian Liberals can be forgiven for wistfully thinking “that could be us,” especially since the government is now well into the fourth year of its five-year mandate — prime time for an election.

Across Canada, most every government’s popularity improved dramatically since the pandemic hit and Canadians rallied behind their leaders’ efforts to keep them safe. The Covid-bounce has the Nova Scotia government’s approval rating at 70 per cent according to the most recent Narrative Research poll. That’s far higher than pre-pandemic levels.

Voter intentions in the same September poll suggest the Liberals could have waltzed back into office with another majority this fall. Among decided voters, 47 per cent expressed a preference for the Liberals compared to 27 per cent for the secondplace Conservatives.


The new leader will be elected, after six days of voting online or by phone, on Feb. 6, and while that may seem a long way off, the holidays force a mid-campaign lull, so all three campaigns are in high-gear now.


As it now stands, and from the outside looking in, McNeil is leaving the party in good shape politically. But a distinguishing characteristic of a big bounce in the polls is that it can come down just as quickly as it went up, should the circumstances behind it change.

All of that is to say that there’s no telling how the government will stack up with Nova Scotians when Labi Kousoulis, Iain Rankin, or Randy Delorey takes the helm from McNeil.

The new leader will be elected, after six days of voting online or by phone, on Feb. 6, and while that may seem a long way off, the holidays force a mid-campaign lull, so all three campaigns are in high-gear now.

At first blush, there seems little to separate the three white males, all of whom served in McNeil’s cabinet. Each was first elected when the Liberals won the government in 2013 and all three won re-election with ease in 2017.

The candidates and their campaigns are now taking the first, tentative steps at staking out some ground of their own to differentiate them from the competition.


. . . to date, the differences among the three are more a matter of emphasis and style than substance.


A successful businessman before entering politics, Kousoulis, who represents the peninsular riding Halifax-Citadel-sable Island, was first in the race. Rankin, from suburban Timberlea-prospect, is the youngest contender, at 37, and Delorey, the last man in, represents Antigonish in the legislature and held the hot-potato finance and health portfolios in McNeil’s government.

Kousoulis has the business resume his campaign will trade on to position their man as the candidate for the times — the guy with the proven chops to lead the province’s post-pandemic economic recovery. Early in the campaign, he’s also emphasizing innova-tion in the delivery of health care to ensure access to services and a fund to help medical practices add nurses.

Rankin would move the party back toward the centre left, its traditional electoral sweet spot, vacated when McNeil’s government edged it to the right. The environment is high on his agenda, and he’ll run as the candidate who can broaden the party’s appeal with younger and diverse voters.

Delorey’s starting the campaign by listening to Liberals in virtual town halls and other meetings and he promises to take that consultative approach to government. Education and social justice issues are priorities for the former university professor and expect to hear some emphasis on his rural-riding roots, since his opponents both hail from the HRM.

But, to date, the differences among the three are more a matter of emphasis and style than substance.

Finding substantive differences among three members of the same government may be too much to ask, but if anything will draw lines of demarcation, it’s putting them in a room — at a safe distance, of course — and letting them go at one another in a freewheeling debate. The provincial Tories did that in 2018 in the leadership race eventually won by Tim Houston.

The party is in the process of organizing and scheduling all-candidates debates and expects to have an announcement on that soon. Whether those will be the kind of wide-open political dust-ups that will allow Liberals and other Nova Scotians to effectively size up their next premier and measure each man against his rivals, remains to be seen.

We’ll find out soon enough.

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