How COVID-19 is affecting the race to be the next premier of Nova Scotia

·4 min read

Antigonish MLA Randy Delorey is hoping to meet with several hundred would-be supporters Wednesday night to outline why he should be the next leader of the Nova Scotia Liberal Party and premier of the province.

But these are not normal times and this is not a normal leadership race, so even if Delorey gets the turnout he's hoping for he won't actually be in the same room as those supporters.

That's because the meeting is virtual. It's part of a variety of options Delorey and fellow leadership candidates Labi Kousoulis and Iain Rankin are using as they try to interact with as many people as possible to build support, all while adhering to Public Health guidelines and being mindful of the realities of COVID-19.

"It means we as leadership contenders or candidates have to work harder and our teams have to work harder to build that enthusiasm," said Delorey.

"What I think is a positive side of this is, because you have to build more one-on-one engagements, whether it's through a phone call or virtual engagements, the people who you are reaching, I think, you're reaching in a more substantive way."

Events change as COVID cases increase

It's then on the candidates and their teams to motivate and encourage those people to work on their behalf to spread the word, said Delorey.

All three candidates have been using a mix of in-person and virtual campaign events and online marketing since the start of the race last month, but as the number of COVID-19 cases in the province has increased and Public Health has sounded the alarm, all of the campaigns have started reducing the size and frequency of physical meetings.

The name of the game in a leadership contest is signing up new party members and the easiest way to do that is by packing as many people as possible into community halls around the province. Without the ability to do that, Kousoulis said the strength and size of a campaign team becomes even more important.

"We have a lot of volunteers. We make calls, people sign up electronically and we're limiting the amount of person-to-person contact, which also makes it harder because it's a lot easier to get a sign up if you have a personal interaction with someone versus you call them up and you ask them to sign up over the phone," he said.

As they've curtailed in-person events, Kousoulis said they're now requiring people to pre-register ahead of time as a further safety precaution.

Trying to build a profile

An added challenge to limitations on in-person events is what it means for the candidates' ability to grow their profiles. Although all three were cabinet ministers before resigning their posts to pursue replacing Premier Stephen McNeil, it's not a stretch to suggest none are household names.

Rankin said finding ways to adapt to the presence of COVID-19 is something everyone is trying to do. In the case of his campaign, it's why they've made a concerted effort early into things to release several policy positions, including on affordable housing, support for the restaurant industry and renewable energy.

"Coming out with policies early on, I think, is a good way for people to get to know where I stand on those issues, at least," he said.

"I think we just need to make sure we're adapting; all Nova Scotians are, businesses are. The premier made his decision [to retire] so we're moving forward."

Building engagement

Party members will elect their new leader and premier on Feb. 6 during a virtual convention based at the Halifax convention centre.

Jane O'Neill, one of the campaign co-chairs, said there would be very limited physical attendance, including the candidates and a few others, although even that could change based on the epidemiology at the time. Everything is being approved by Public Health officials and O'Neill said plans are regularly being updated based on the most current protocols.

Even with the unusual circumstances, O'Neill said she believes people will be engaged by the process because of what's on the line.

"We're confident that we will have a lot of engagement from all Nova Scotians — party members or not — for the convention itself, because the reality is the candidate who is successful in the leadership is going to be the premier."