Before we enter the booth and wield the stubby pencil, let us consider the big picture. Let me tell it in terms of my political fancy, the one I’ve been nursing for decades: The NDP comes to power and mounts the third great reform movement in Nova Scotia’s snarled political history. And this one sticks. They manage to actually change our bad political culture.
Bear with me. The Liberals and Conservatives both had a historic run at it, but our patronage-ridden politics defeated them both.
The Liberals’ turn came in the reform movement led by Joseph Howe, culminating with Nova Scotia, in 1848, being the first domain in what is now Canada to win full democracy. Yes, I know, that was a long time ago. But Joe Howe’s problem is our problem still. You’ll recognize the story.
Howe dreamt of Nova Scotia becoming a "normal school" for the others, teaching them how it’s done. He was quickly shot down. His Liberals were not interested in high-minded ideals. They just wanted the goodies so long denied them by the Tory oligarchy. A couple of terms in office and they were already in bad odour.
That brought in the Tories of Charles Tupper, who rushed us into Confederation without consultation and without a proper deal, nearly sparking an insurrection. For that, the Tories were largely destroyed for the better part of a century. After 89 years of mostly one-party Liberal rule, it was the reformed Tories’ turn with Robert Stanfield’s upset victory in 1956.
Stanfield was an enlightened man. He had studied governments elsewhere, knew that our problem was patronage, political corruption and bad justice and tried to mitigate it. Instead of firing everybody, as was the custom, he kept the best Liberals in the civil service — or as many as he could get away with against flak from his own party.
He also presided over the Nova Scotia version of what in Quebec was called the Quiet Revolution — wherein 19th century health, education and welfare structures were modernized. There was a palpable sense of progress and optimism. I remember it myself as a teenager. Alas, 10 years after Stanfield left office, the Buchanan Conservatives did to the positive parts of his legacy what the 1850s Grits did to Howe. Expanded health and education in particular were an excuse to go on election-driven pig-outs that we’re still paying for.
It also started a new and painful process that leads us to Tuesday, and the logic of the NDP coming to power. Indeed, the failure of the Stanfield revolution, if we can call it that, is arguably why Darrell Dexter has been created by our political history to try again. The question is not so much, "Can he win?" (that’s seeming more and more likely), but "If if he does, will he too be tripped up by the booby traps of our politics?" Indeed, is he compromised already?
That question is coming mostly from the left wing of his own party. Or, as one of my emailers, a party worker, put it, she was on her way to put up NDP signs with "bloody mixed emotions" after discovering there was no anti-poverty plank in the NDP platform. Others have spoken of a lack of a rural development policy and other deficiencies. I’ve noted my own problems with the NDP on health and environmental policy.
But platforms are not the point. What the NDP can do, if it works out right, is unlock the public energies that have been screaming to be heard over our political muddles for 30 years on any number of issues, de-couple our political processes from whatever remains of the old patronage system, and raise public confidence in government. The sense of frustration released — and the expectations — will be huge on Wednesday if it happens.
Platform aside, the NDP’s veterans are mostly all people who have been close to the ground — poverty groups, housing groups, environmental groups, small businesses, unions (Yes, unions! So what?) and so on. Consider health care. The NDP’s policy of keeping rural ERs open all the time at all costs is, like the Tory and Liberal policies, not realistic. However, I consider the NDP the one most capable of actually going outside the health care bureaucracy and bringing in the ER doctors, the nurses who quit — or haven’t quit yet — in discouragement, and others frustrated beyond belief, and engage them in the process once and for all.
I say the sense of frustration released will be huge. It was huge when Stanfield was elected too. Indeed, if the NDP makes it, especially with a majority, I doubt that the shock will be greater than in 1956, when a Tory was essentially a radical in a Liberal-biased society. The difference this time — cross your fingers — is that this is a party with no centuries-long chain dragging behind it.
Ralph Surette is a veteran freelance journalist living in Yarmouth County.
This article was first published in The Chronicle-Herald and is reprinted with permission.