HALIFAX — During more than six years as Nova Scotia premier, Stephen McNeil earned a reputation as an ardent fiscal conservative who wasn’t shy about taking on the province’s public sector unions.
Until the COVID-19 pandemic upended every province’s finances earlier this year, McNeil could boast about delivering five consecutive balanced budgets.
Last week, when the 55-year-old Liberal leader announced the province’s projected deficit had reached $853 million, he returned to a familiar theme by warning public sector employees it was time for them to dampen their wage expectations.
“We have to get back and focusing on those fundamentals, things that allowed us as a province to get into the good fiscal position we were in,” he said at the time. “All of us are going to play a role in this, and that means all of those in the public sector are going to have to play a role too.”
McNeil won back-to-back majority governments in 2013 and 2017, largely by promising and delivering on platforms that focused on keeping provincial spending in check. The platforms weren’t sexy, but they won votes.
The 12th of 17 children, McNeil said he learned about frugality and perseverance after his father died. McNeil was only eight years old at the time. His mother, Theresa, had to raise 17 children on her own.
“She had no driver’s licence and hadn’t worked outside the house,” McNeil said in 2013. “The next morning, she woke up and said, ‘We’re it.’ We were all looking at her.”
As the former owner of an appliance repair business, McNeil often talked about how his experience running a small business gave him a keen appreciation for the financial challenges that most Nova Scotians face.
“I didn’t train to be the premier,” he said before the 2013 election. ”I was out working. I made my living carrying a tool box.”
Throughout his first term, the premier took aim at the public sector, repeatedly reminding Nova Scotians that public sector wages had increased 11.5 per cent over the previous seven years — well above the increases seen in the private sector.
In April 2014, his government forced 2,400 striking nurses back to work by introducing legislation that required all health-sector unions to draft essential services agreements before any job action could occur.
And in February 2017, he imposed a contract on 9,400 public school teachers, ending a two-month work-to-rule campaign.
Union leaders were enraged.
“Of course, we all remember the unions rallying around Province House,” McNeil told reporters Thursday after he stunned the province by announcing his sudden decision to leave public life.
“I think for the first five years, I don’t think I had a (legislative) session where there wasn’t some form of a protest — but that’s governing.”
The Liberals won a reduced majority in May 2017, but it was clear the premier’s get-tough approach with the public sector was not the main reason for the government’s loss of seven seats.
Instead, critics focused on the fact that McNeil had failed to deliver on a promise to make sure every Nova Scotian had access to a family physician. At the time, about 100,000 Nova Scotians were still looking for a doctor. By last month, that number had fallen to 45,000.
During his second term, McNeil made a point of investing in health care. The $2-billion redevelopment of the QEII Health Sciences Centre in Halifax has been described as the largest health-care project in the province’s history.
A soft-spoken man with an imposing 6-foot-5 frame, McNeil could appear stern when fielding questions from the media. But that perceived lack of warmth never bothered the premier.
“Some might see me as a bit stiff and not as jovial as I really am,” he said in 2013.
McNeil won praise for his steady leadership during the past five months, but one moment of anger in April spoke volumes about the his otherwise low-key personality.
Struggling to find the words to persuade Nova Scotians they had to limit their travel to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus, McNeil raised his voice during a news conference, saying: ”Stay the blazes home!”
His folksy expression went viral. The phrase soon appeared on coffee cups, T-shirts and an endless loop of social media memes.
In the end, McNeil said Thursday it was time to move on after 17 years in provincial politics — and 13 years as Liberal leader.
After attending a cabinet meeting, he said he had planned to leave politics in the spring, but the pandemic prompted him to stay on the job.
Later in the day, McNeil issued a brief statement that showed his softer side.
“We have accomplished so much together,” he said. “I may not have always gotten it right. But here’s what I know for sure: we are better together and being kind matters.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 6, 2020.
Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press