Behind the NDP disaster in Nova Scotia

by George Baron
    People talk about the “orange wave” that swept Nova Scotia in 2009, carrying provincial New Democratic Party leader Darrell Dexter to government. It’s generally agreed that voters were fed up with the quality of governance provided by the Liberals and Conservatives, over many years, and decided to give the NDP a try. There was a mandate for change and change was what was promised.
    The “orange wave” manifested as 31 NDP seats to 9 Liberal seats. Now in 2013 there is a huge reversal of fortunes with 33 Liberal seats to 7 NDP seats. (When its vote plunged by 18.4 per cent, the NDP became the first governing party not to win a second term in Nova Scotia history. – editor)
    Voters chose to return to the known and to abandon the NDP. It is my opinion that the downfall of Dexter’s NDP government’s was that it did not change the status quo. The Nova Scotia NDP government over the last four years was not particularly bad. There were no major scandals. There was reasonable fiscal responsibility. If it had been a government running under a Conservative banner, I suspect it might have been re-elected. But the NDP was supposed to be different. They were punished for not living up to their ideals.
The loss of the October 8 election does not just put the NDP back where it was. There has been severe damage to the NDP brand. Since 2009 core NDP supporters have been steadily abandoning ship.
    Speaking of abandoning ships, I should tell the story of the cancelling of the international ferry between Yarmouth and Maine which happened early in the NDP’s term. This was triggered by the Harper Conservative government withdrawing the federal funding. But it was the provincial NDP that took all the blame. The NDP’s decision, that alone it couldn’t afford the subsidy (equivalent to $600 per car that used it), was sound enough, but how the cancellation was handled was a public relations disaster.
    Across the board, support for the NDP plunged. Why?
    First, the NDP wasn’t different. The MLA expense scandal found at least one criminal in each party. The NDP broke the election promise to not raise the HST (provincial sales tax). The issue here is not fiscal; it is about saying one thing and doing another. Darrell Dexter, personally, fed the “culture of entitlement”, holding on to the idea that the public should pay his fees to the N.S. bar association, a little too long. The public and NDPers in particular, had been looking for a new politics; not politics as usual. There were too many slogans; “Ships Start Here”, “Better Care Sooner”, “Growing the Economy”. If the government were really getting results they wouldn’t need to advertise to convince the public of their effectiveness.
    Second, Dexter appeared to be a one man show. When he excluded (the MLA and renowned progressive environmental activist) Howard Epstein from his cabinet it was a sign that he didn’t want to share power or entertain different views. For those of us on the left in the NDP, it was ominous. In my opinion, the most shiny star in caucus was the earnest and diligent Graham Steele. When he left his post as Finance Minister it was another sign. It was the beginning of the end.dexter-toon
    Third, the NDP government managed to alienate every group on the left. If you were a peace activist you could hardly warm up to growing the economy by building warships. If you were an environmentalist, you had concerns with a government that wanted to grow the economy with wind farms, mink farms, fish farms, and spreading Halifax’s sewage on regular farms, withoutenough attention being given to the down-side of industrializing everything. If you were a unionist you were appalled at the treatment of the school teachers and the paramedics, to name only two examples. If you were in a minority group you had concerns. Acadians (a French-speaking minority) lost their protected ridings (where they constituted the majority). The government response to the past abuses at the “Home for the Coloured” was one of trying to avoid responsibility rather than showing human compassion. If you were a student or an Occupier you felt invisible. If you were a socialist you couldn’t understand all the tax dollars being given to corporations.
    One could argue that in today’s world, which is in fact controlled by the corporations, governments have to make concessions to attract jobs to their jurisdiction. However this NDP government took it to the extreme, so much so that, ironically, the Liberals and Conservatives ran on platforms saying they opposed the practice. Is this how we socialists intended to change the system? The one example of “corporate welfare” that took the prize was the Nova Scotia NDP government providing a non-repayable loan to Jim Irving, the richest person in the Maritimes, after he won a three billion dollar federal contract to build warships. Did he need the “start-up” funds? Would no one else lend him money? Would he have taken his ship-building facilities out of Halifax, if we didn’t pay up? I don’t think so.
    NDP supporters have been alienated. This has led to a decline in membership renewals and a decline in donations. People, like myself, who used to ask for renewals and donations have stopped asking. I am embarrassed. After the 2009 election, with the excitement of a new NDP government, I recruited three municipal politicians to my local provincial constituency association’s executive. Any one of them would have been a good NDP candidate with their proven electability, but by 2013 they were all gone. I don’t blame them. Maybe none of them wanted to be an MLA, but they all knew the NDP brand would not help them, if they did. The candidate that did end up running had no NDP background, nor what I would call NDP values.
    This was an anomaly. In other provincial ridings the candidate was more likely to be a party stalwart, a senior citizen, someone who offered to put his name on the ballot to save the party’s face. I hammered in a few signs for one of those party stalwarts, to help him save face.        
    One of the very few senior, and experienced organizers in West Nova told me, “I know I am in a dysfunctional marriage, but I’m staying in it for the kids”.
    I’m not at all sure this has been good for the kids.

George Barron lives in Bear River, Nova Scotia, and was the NDP federal candidate in West Nova constituency in the 2008 and 2011 federal elections. He is a member of the NDP Socialist Caucus federal steering committee.