Nova Scotia premier-designate Iain Rankin inherits big challenges

Call it a changing of the guard.

After more than seven years with Stephen McNeil at the helm of the Nova Scotia government, Iain Rankin is preparing to take his place following a win in Saturday’s Nova Scotia Liberal Party leadership convention.

And what is to be made of that?

Rankin is not McNeil — not in temperament, presence or policy priorities. Despite inheriting a province with a massive deficit, Rankin is less focused on balancing the books — a McNeil trademark — and more focused on framing an economic recovery through a greener provincial economy.

To be certain, he had nothing but praise for the outgoing premier on Saturday during both his acceptance speech and while speaking with reporters. The MLA for Timberlea-Prospect framed his win as an evolution of the work McNeil started when he became premier in 2013, the year Rankin was first elected as an MLA.

Iain Rankin addresses supporters after winning the leadership of the Nova Scotia Liberal party at a virtual convention in Halifax on Saturday. (The Canadian Press)

But when it came to continuing McNeil’s work, Rankin was not the candidate of choice for party establishment. That was Randy Delorey.

And it’s notable that on the same night the party paid tribute to McNeil, the rank-and-file widely preferred two candidates other than Delorey. The former health minister didn’t even make it beyond the first ballot.

As much as the story on Saturday night was Rankin’s win, which included a pledge to listen to and ensure party members have a voice while charting a policy course centred on environmentalism and social justice, it would be wrong to overlook the performance of leadership candidate Labi Kousoulis, who finished second.

Kousoulis, the former labour minister and first candidate to enter the leadership race, was dismissed initially as a long shot by many in the party, even by some members in his own caucus.

It wasn’t long before those same people, however, were remarking on the organizational strength of Kousoulis’s campaign, how many policy ideas the team was producing and their ability to sign up new members.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Rankin specifically mentioned one of Kousoulis’s campaign policies during his acceptance speech. That is that government jobs that can be done from home should be open to anyone in the province, regardless of where they live.

Rankin will spend the coming weeks putting together a staff and forming a cabinet, one he said would include Kousoulis and Delorey, before being sworn in as premier.

Given that the world is in the midst of a pandemic and the provincial deficit is massive (see said pandemic), Rankin won’t be able to ease into the job of premier.

Nova Scotia Liberal Party leadership candidate Labi Kousoulis put in a strong showing, finishing second. (CBC)

Right now he has a mandate from Liberal Party delegates, something he acknowledged on Saturday.

But if he is to implement the kind of policy he referenced in his campaign, at some point he will need to seek a mandate from all Nova Scotians through a general election. For Rankin and his party to be successful, the machine Kousoulis has built will likely need to be a part of that effort.

Nova Scotia Liberals now must quickly decide if they are going to fall in behind Rankin and the team that earned him the party leadership and premier’s office, or if hard feelings will lead to the eventual result that befell the Progressive Conservatives when Rodney MacDonald inherited that party from then-premier John Hamn in 2006.

MacDonald became premier of a majority government, only to see it reduced to a minority in the subsequent election before being relegated to third place in 2009. The Tories haven’t been in power since.

On Saturday, Rankin told reporters he came into the convention confident of a win because of the work his team did throughout the campaign. He’ll need even more work from an even bigger team if Saturday’s result is to be translated into a third consecutive majority for the Nova Scotia Liberal Party.


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