- PATRICK FULGENCIO
It's been a year since Andrew Younger was ousted from the provincial Liberal caucus and premier Stephen McNeil's cabinet.
An experienced politician, going back to his days as a member of Halifax Regional Council representing East Dartmouth-The Lakes, Younger is now the independent MLA for Dartmouth East, a seat he first won in 2009. He's the lone independent representative in Nova Scotia's 51-seat legislature.
A volatile sequence of events produced a controversy last year that pushed Younger out the door of the Liberals' caucus room (see timeline). First there was the police investigation of an alleged assault against Younger by a former party staffer. Then Younger's parliamentary privilege was used to avoid going to court, causing the case to be dismissed. There was even a mysterious audio recording, and the leaking of Younger's personal health information by the premier's chief of staff Kirby McVicar (which itself lead to McVicar's dismissal weeks later).
In November 2015, when our politicians returned to Province House for that autumn's session, the big fuss involving Younger was predictably a hot topic for all three parties and the legislature's press gallery. The fiasco and its fallout, which were dogging the provincial government, were making lots of headlines back then.
Twelve months later, MLAs have moved on from the Younger matter, as have local media outlets. There's been speculation about the man joining other parties, including the Green Party, but he's chosen to remain unattached to any of them.
And yet, the possible Green connection remains in view. On November 5, Younger, a former provincial environment minister, spoke in Halifax at the annual convention and general meeting of the Green Party of Nova Scotia. Earlier this year, he met with federal Green leader Elizabeth May and attended a news conference here with her and the provincial Greens' interim leader.
Younger's game plan, however, is to stick with going it alone and run for re-election.
“I've had overtures from other parties,” he acknowledges. “But at this point, my intent is to stay as an independent and run as an independent, because I think that's working for me and for my constituents.”
Prior to Younger's excommunication, the last member of the legislature to sit as an independent was former Conservative Chuck Porter, MLA for Hants West. He left the Tory caucus in 2014 after clashing with Conservative leader Jamie Baillie.
Serving as an independent for almost two years, Porter joined the provincial Liberal caucus in February.
There have been other independents in the House of Assembly, former team players who went solo for various reasons. Most of those moves were hooked to bad-news stories that produced distinctly lousy publicity for their former parties. Examples include Brian Boudreau (failed breathalyzer), Ernie Fage (leaving the scene of a car accident), Russell MacKinnon and Trevor Zinck (both tied to the MLA expense scandal).
Asked how he's been getting along with his former Liberal colleagues, Younger says the relationship at the beginning of his tenure as an independent was not good. Then things improved.
“As there are in every party, there are some hyper-partisans who will barely say a word. But then there are people who I speak to at the legislature every day, or who I run into at events, and we end up having long conversations about issues,” Younger says. “So, out of the 30-plus Liberals that there are, it's a mixed bag.”
Two years ago, shortly after Porter left the Conservatives' camp, political analyst Graham Steele, himself a former Nova Scotia NDP cabinet minister, wrote that an independent MLA can do the constituency work just fine without party affiliation, but managing a successful election campaign is a different ball game.
“It is formidably difficult to run a winning independent campaign,” Steele wrote in a CBC News commentary in 2014. The last time anyone was elected in this province as an independent was in 1988.
Younger, a 42-year-old married father of one, saw a promising career in politics temporarily derailed by multiple problems—troubles that melded his private and public lives.
A politician knows there's trouble ahead when his story makes it into continuing news reports that use such terms as "controversy," "scandal," "sensational," "fiasco," "mess," "alleged assault," "court trial," "inconsistencies," "weird," "strange" and "bizarre."
Another part of the mess last year was the conversation Younger had with the premier's chief of staff, McVicar. The recording took place last February without McVicar's knowledge.
McVicar resigned in November 2015 as McNeil's top staffer, shortly after he publicly disclosed personal health information about Younger.
Looking back, Younger has had time to think about everything that happened and about his situation. For one thing, he says now the assault charge should never have gone ahead since he, the alleged victim, didn't want to pursue it. Ahead it went, because police got involved due to the police department's zero-tolerance policies for domestic violence.
Younger says in hindsight, “there will always be things” that he would have handled differently.
“I am by no means a perfect person,” he says. “I have never claimed to be perfect and I have as many, or perhaps more, faults than anyone else. But those faults and mistakes in life make me who I am.”
As for Younger's future in politics, no one has a crystal ball. Steele, in his 2014 piece for CBC News, wrote that Porter, the former Conservative MLA, would be able to serve his riding well as an independent member of the House of Assembly.
“But come election time,” wrote Steele, “if [Porter] wants to be re-elected, he'd better be a Liberal.”
And that's exactly what Porter did.
Asked if he'd rejoin the McNeil Liberals, should an offer be extended, Younger says no. He says he doesn't agree with some of the government's decisions that have come along. “But the other thing is, my family and I, from my perspective, were treated very poorly by the party.”
As the political parties prepare for the next general election—possibly coming as early as next spring—Younger remains on the outside looking in. This is not an enviable position for any MLA, says political scientist Jim Bickerton.
“It can be a lonely existence,” says Bickerton, about the working life of an independent politician.
The rules of the legislature “give parties and their representatives the main role in proceedings and committees, with little...support” for independent MLAs.
“Focusing on constituency work would be the obvious thing to do,” says Bickerton, who teaches at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish. “But even here, you may be at a distinct disadvantage, since you have less, if any, access to party caucus channels that are available to other MLAs.”
Younger says he's adjusted well to being an independent member of the legislature. Working as an independent MLA has provided him with “a breath of freedom.” It's a similar environment to the six years he spent on Halifax council.
“On council, you're basically an independent,” he says. “It was really returning to my roots.”
A timeline of events in the independent MLA’s political career
June 2009: Elected as Liberal MLA for Dartmouth East.
October 2013: Re-elected.
November 2014: Alleged threats made against Younger prompt Halifax Regional Police to launch an investigation.
December 2014: Former Liberal staffer Tara Gault is arrested and charged with assault. Police say it’s related to an incident alleged to have taken place the previous October near The Dingle.
December 23, 2014: The province issues a press release saying Andrew Younger has requested a leave of absence for “personal reasons.”
February 2015: On what he says was the advice of police, Younger records a conversation at his constituency office between himself and Kirby McVicar, the premier’s chief of staff.
March 18, 2015: Gault pleads not guilty.
March 24, 2015: Younger resigns as Energy minister, but denies the court case having played a role in his decision. Premier Stephen McNeil claims not to have asked for the resignation.
July 2015: Younger is named Environment minister.
November 4, 2015: Failing to appear in court for the Gault assault trial,Younger says his lawyer had found legal precedence for parliamentary privilege and presented the circumstances to the Crown saying it “may be an issue.” The judge dismisses the case.
November 5, 2015: Younger’s dismissed from cabinet and kicked out of the Liberal caucus.
November 13, 2015: He releases a two-minute audio recording (the one made back in February) during which McVicar can be heard discussing possibilities for Younger’s return to cabinet.
November 19, 2015: An anonymous letter and another section of the recording is sent to the premier’s office. Those items are handed over to the RCMP. The legislature passes a unanimous motion compelling Younger to release the full recording before November 20.
November 20, 2015: Younger swears a legal oath saying the recording no longer exists. A warrant is issued demanding Younger hand over the recording before November 23 of face censure.
November 23, 2015: The 12-minute recording is handed over to the Legislature. Younger says he found it backed-up on the Cloud.
November 24, 2015: The Freedom of Information office receives a complaint from Younger about McVicar disclosing personal health information about him to the media. McVicar resigns.