Arriving at Province House last month on the heels of an impressive by-election victory, young Cecil Clarke seemed to show great promise.
He had beaten both Wes Stubbert, the popular, if goofy, municipal pol who ran for the Liberals, and then-NDP leader Helen MacDonald, a humiliation that led inexorably to her resignation from the leadership two weeks ago. He had done so despite the government's record of indifference and hostility to Cape Breton.
A record of employment in community development gave Clarke solid credentials as a Red Tory, just the sort of MLA Conservatives need to broaden their narrow, small-town, rural base.
He won partly on the strength of having stood up to boisterous heckling from a group of steelworkers who crossed Sydney Harbour to crash the raucous, all-candidate's debate in Cape Breton North.
He loudly and forcefully told them Sysco's day was past and it was time to focus development efforts on industries with promise for the island's future. Doing that required both courage and the discernment to see that standing up to Sysco whiners would prove popular on the Northside.
Although Clarke did not get the instant cabinet post Tory operatives had all but promised voters in Cape Breton North, his political career was off to a good start. There were murmurs of a great future, maybe even as premier.
Since then, Clarke has mostly made a spectacle of himself.
He botched a chance to align himself with the Cape Breton Regional Municipality's visionary plan to unite Sydney Harbour's Balkanized facilities, currently scattered among a series of non-cooperating, single-use owners.
With the sale of Devco and Sysco, CBRM saw a chance to assemble the harbour's infrastructure under a single, multi-user port authority, much as it is in Halifax. When the Sysco sale fell through, CBRM asked for a chance to buy the Steel Plant's loading pier as a first step.
The Hamm government was cool to the plan, illustrating how out of touch it is with local needs and realities in Cape Breton. Because no core government policy was at stake, this presented a perfect opportunity for a sensible local MLA to wield useful influence on his own government. Ridings elect government MLAs for precisely this sort of situation.
Instead, Clarke supported the government's refusal to give CBRM first crack at Sysco's port assets. The Sysco pier will likely end up with the Laurentian Energy Group, the consortium of local businessmen, most with strong Tory affiliation, who bought the Sydport Industrial Park amidst a loud public controversy.
Worse, Clarke seems to view the legislature as a forum to expand the oratorical techniques that proved successful in the all-candidates' debate. He appears to have only one speaking style: full holler. But what was useful in a uniquely charged political debate can be unbecoming as standard speaking fare, especially in a young, relatively inexperienced politician.
The government's legislative strategists have taken advantage of Clarke's progressive credentials to deploy him exclusively in attacks on New Democrats. The NDP aren't interested in health care, he bellowed during a recent debate over the narrowly averted closure of the Northside General Hospital's emergency ward, they're only interested in a health scare.
That rant reached an ugly climax when Clarke shouted, "You need an emergency ward up there because your leader's still bleeding in the street."
However, one views Helen MacDonald's political strengths and weaknesses, she remains a decent, dedicated individual, as Hamm himself graciously acknowledged on her retirement from the fray. A smart aleck who gloats over her misfortune in such a tactless way does himself no credit and wins himself no friends.
Some older, wiser Tory should have a word with Clarke; tell him to dial it back before he does his career permanent damage. Let the dinosaurs in the Tory Caucus take some of the burden for hectoring the NDP. Don't be doing all their dirty work for them.
One Michel Samson in the legislature is two or three too many.
Originally published by The Daily News in Halifax. All rights reserved by the author. Parker Barss Donham can be contacted at [email protected].
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