NS Premier John Savage Resigns

According to his friends and longtime political associates, there are two John Savages. The first is the private man, whom they describe as warm and compassionate, a doting grandfather, an affable golf companion.

NS Premier John Savage Resigns

According to his friends and longtime political associates, there are two John Savages. The first is the private man, whom they describe as warm and compassionate, a doting grandfather, an affable golf companion. The second is the public SAVAGE, who during a tumultuous four-year term as Nova Scotia's premier often came across as aloof, arrogant, even condescending. That prickly persona did little to help Savage sell a series of unpopular measures introduced by his government - including health-care and education cuts, municipal amalgamations and an attack on the province's deeply entrenched system of political patronage. Instead, the Welsh-born physician became the intensely personal focus of public outrage - and internal party strife. Acknowledging as much, the 64-year-old Savage last week abruptly declared his intention to resign as soon as a successor could be chosen. "I was obviously unpopular," said Savage in an interview with Maclean's the day after his announcement. "I think it's fair to say that the party will do better without me."

Savage's surprise departure came just one week after the release of a poll showing the Liberals trailing the Conservatives for the first time since the 1993 provincial election. According to the poll, by Halifax-based Corporate Research Associates, 32 per cent of decided voters supported the Tories, compared with 25 per cent for the Liberals and 21 per cent for the NDP. Those results, coming in what should be an election year, brought renewed grumbling from many rank-and-file Liberals - the same people who in 1995 had forced Savage to endure a leadership review even though, only two years earlier, he had led the Liberals in a rout of a scandal-ridden Conservative government, taking 40 of the province's 52 seats. Savage survived the revolt - although in a move that further enraged the dissidents, the party executive declined to disclose his margin of victory.

Savage's fall from grace began almost from the point that he won office. He campaigned as a traditional Liberal who vowed to make job creation his top priority. Inheriting a $471-million deficit, he instead set upon the grim task of cutting government spending. Hospitals closed, older teachers were forced out of their jobs and civil servants saw their wages cut. Party insiders say that it was a program that Savage found distasteful - a point the premier alluded to in his resignation speech when he said that he did not enter political life to cut budgets. Savage did, though, carry through on at least one other key promise: breaking the time-honored Nova Scotia tradition of firing the previous generation of political appointees and replacing them with his own supporters. According to Agar Adamson, a political scientist at Acadia University in Wolfville, that move proved especially unpopular in rural Nova Scotia where "some Liberals, after being locked out for 14 years, figured it was their turn at the trough."

Other premiers, of course, have taken similarly unpopular measures and thrived politically. And Savage might have done so had he enjoyed Ralph Klein's ability to connect with the Alberta electorate or Frank McKenna's command over his New Brunswick Liberal party. But even Savage loyalists such as Annette Marshall, who served as co-chairman of the Liberal election campaign in 1993, acknowledge that the premier sometimes lacked the common touch. In a province that has shown a penchant for back-slapping politicians, Marshall says that Savage stands out as someone who "doesn't work a room well, doesn't schmooze well." Others provide a harsher assessment. "He was very naïve about politics," says one senior Liberal organizer. "He told me once that he wanted to be a nonpartisan premier - it's just not possible. Your base in politics is your party. He had absolutely no roots in the party."

Although the party executive has yet to set a date for a convention, there is no shortage of likely candidates. Two longtime Nova Scotia MPs - Russell MacLellan and Ron MacDonald - were seriously considering a shift to provincial politics. Several members of Savage's cabinet are also touted as possible successors, including Health Minister Bernie Boudreau and Transportation Minister Don Downe.

But this being Nova Scotia, the immediate question asked in political circles after Savage's announcement was: what is he getting? It was perhaps a natural response, given that Savage's two immediate predecessors both received patronage appointments - John Buchanan to the Senate and Donald Cameron as Canada's consul in Boston. Everyone from Prime Minister Jean Chrétien to Savage himself insisted last week that no sinecures had been sought or offered. Savage, while ruling out such obvious patronage plums as a Senate seat, allowed that "if there was a job in which my experience could be used for the benefit of Canada or Nova Scotia, I would be sorely tempted." In the meantime, he says he wants to spend some time getting reacquainted with his grandchildren, playing golf and generally "stopping and smelling the roses." After four years of ducking political flak - both from the public and his own party - it sounded like a welcome game plan.

Maclean's March 31, 1997