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Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Houston managed to patch up some wounds opened during the party’s leadership campaign and signal differences between his party and the governing Liberals, when he put his stamp on the Tory legislative caucus Wednesday.
Less than two weeks after winning the leadership of Nova Scotia’s Conservatives, Houston named a shadow cabinet that features prominent roles for the Cape Breton MLAs who supported his main leadership rival, Cape Breton Regional Municipality Mayor Cecil Clarke.
Late in the leadership contest an ugly rift opened in the party in CBRM when Tories who supported Houston and vehemently opposed Clarke suggested that local MLAs and Clarke supporters Eddie Orrell (Northside-Westmount) and Alfie MacLeod (Sydney River-Mira-Louisbourg) should be punished for that support.
Houston, who said at the time the anti-Clarke faction was not speaking for him, put the matter firmly to rest by handing Orrell and MacLeod key responsibilities in the Tory caucus.
Orrell becomes critic for labour and advanced education and was named chair of the legislature’s high-profile public accounts committee. MacLeod becomes the community services and aboriginal affairs critic.
Another leadership rival, third-place finisher John Lohr from Kings North, has been given critic responsibilities in the new area of addictions and mental health. The Tories want to emphasize the need for better mental health services across Nova Scotia.
The appointment offers Lohr an opportunity to focus on issues he cares deeply about, and highlights Houston’s promise to create a separate department for addictions and mental health if the Conservatives form the government.
Karla MacFarlane, who earned the party’s affection and admiration while serving as interim leader, along with stellar reviews for her performance as opposition leader in the legislature, will stay in the public spotlight as the Conservative health critic. She’ll also chair the caucus.
Cumberland North MLA and leadership candidate Elizabeth Smith-McCrossin got a relatively low-profile job as municipal affairs critic, an appointment that will disappoint her leadership backers who hoped she’d land in a more prominent role, like the health critic post she held prior to the leadership campaign.
The state of health care in Nova Scotia is the top issue on voters’ minds, and Houston clearly decided that MacFarlane has the skills to hold the government accountable for the relentless parade of health issues.
Houston’s dominance of the leadership race was understated by the weighted point system that allocated 100 points to each riding regardless of the number of votes it produced. He fell just short of a first ballot victory in the five-person race based on that system, but by any other measure he won outright.
Of the 8,947 total votes cast, 4,568 — more than 51 per cent — were for Houston. His closest rival was Clarke who received 2,476 votes. Houston also won the most votes in 39 of the province’s 51 ridings.
Houston had to try to find a balance between rewarding his own supporters — the majority of caucus — and bridging divisions created by the long leadership race.
For the most part, he’s achieved that balance.
Pictou Centre MLA Pat Dunn, an early supporter of Houston’s leadership was named deputy leader to go along with critic responsibility for transportation and infrastructure.
Other key jobs for Houston backers include the Education critic post for Queens-Shelburne MLA Kim Masland; Allan MacMaster (Inverness) in finance and treasury board; Tim Halman, justice; Barb Adams, communities, culture and heritage, and seniors; and Brad Johns in environment.
Argyle-Barrington veteran MLA Chris d’Entremont, who co-chaired the leadership race and stayed neutral, retains the job of opposition House leader, along with critic duties for internal services, communications Nova Scotia, and Acadian affairs.
Victoria-The Lakes Tory Keith Bain, another Clarke supporter, became fisheries and aquaculture critic, while Alana Peon (Cape Breton-Richmond) takes on agriculture, along with tourism and youth.
Colchester-Musquodoboit Valley Tory Larry Harrison is the critic for the Public Service Commission and the newest member of the caucus, Tory Ruston, who won a byelection in Cumberland South earlier this year, is forestry critic.
This is Tim Houston’s party now, and its fortunes will rise and fall on his performance as Opposition leader and his ability to connect with Nova Scotians by offering solutions that, as he said, “will make life easier for people in our province.”