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Election Nova Scotia: Orange crush to red tide

Former Nova Scotia premier, Darrell Dexter.

Its dissolution began at the instant of its creation.

I clearly recall being in the cavernous Cunard Centre on the Halifax waterfront where Darrell Dexter chose to present his new cabinet on June 19, 2009, shortly after the triumphant Nova Scotia election that brought the first NDP government in history to power -- and a majority one, at that. It seemed an auspicious occasion and location. Just as shipping magnate Samuel Cunard had launched what was arguably the most successful steamship company of all time from this spot on the Halifax waterfront in 1840 when the RMS Britannia began to ply the waves between Liverpool and Halifax, so a new ship of state was poised to set sail -- an NDP government in Atlantic Canada, a new political phenomenon. Social-democratic anchors away!

After a literal or figurative drum-roll (I've now forgotten which; perhaps it was bag pipers …?) the cabinet ministers filed into place behind the newly minted provincial premier. There was a moment of confusion and then an audible gasp swept through the audience -- where was Howard?

MLA Howard EpsteinHoward, of course, was Howard Epstein; lawyer, law professor, and peerless environmental activist. Epstein was also a former city councillor, and one of the NDP Young Turks elected in 1998 when the party came within a hair's breadth of taking power under then provincial leader Robert Chisholm (the Liberals and NDP tied with 19 seats, however the Liberals, by the prerogative of incumbency, went on to form government). Running in the riding of Halifax Chebucto, Epstein became one of the most successful and popular politicians in the province, re-elected in 1999, 2003, 2006, and 2009. His encyclopedic knowledge, uncompromising integrity, relentless activism, and genial and engaging manner had won him supporters throughout the province as the de facto standard-bearer of the progressive, activist wing of the NDP. With great oratorical gifts, a strong following, stellar legal and environmental skills, he was an extraordinary political asset for the party.

After the 2009 NDP victory, the talk in activist circles was which portfolio Epstein would receive. He would make an environment minister the like of which Nova Scotia had never known, although his considerable gifts would be well utilized as Minister of Natural Resources, Minister of Energy, Justice Minister, or even Deputy Premier. The notion of Epstein, one of the most-talented and longest-serving NDP politicians, being shut out of cabinet was simply unthinkable. Yet, there he wasn't on stage, a glaring omission, conspicuous by his absence. I still recall a momentary confusion as those gathered for the ceremony looked to one another thinking there must be some mistake, and then the flushes of anger, people stalking out of the hall.

Howard Epstein is a friend, but I recount this story not to dredge up arcane minutiae of past political maneuverings, but because of what was signalled to the progressive, activist wing of the NDP, namely that they would have no voice at the cabinet table. And so, it came to pass. And, arguably, this exclusion of an activist agenda was precisely what led to the spectacular flameout of the NDP on October 8, 2013 when it sank from being a majority government with 31 members, to third party status with a mere rump caucus of seven, thereby becoming the only government in Nova Scotia's history not to have won a second mandate. It was a stellar rise followed by an even more spectacular fall, all the more perplexing because the NDP actually accomplished much of significance.

The NDP record on environment

As a New Democrat I'm not without a partisan perspective, but I think any objective analysis of the record of the Dexter government would make clear that it has been one of the most fiscally, socially, environmentally, and culturally responsible that the province has ever seen. It is the case that when the NDP took office they found out that the larder really was bare, and were shortly thereafter catapulted into the middle of a global financial meltdown while revenues from the offshore were drying up and the federal government was changing equalization formulas. It faced a daunting set of economic challenges and managed to sail the fiscal ship of state through them relatively well, balancing the budget, increasing Nova Scotia's credit rating, and lowering the debt to GDP ratio from 48.7% to 36.6%.

There have been significant accomplishments. Let's examine one sector I am particularly familiar with; environment, energy, and climate change. The NDP placed hard caps on Greenhouse Gas emissions (GHG); announced very enterprising renewable energy targets of 40% by 2020 (a major achievement from the perspectives of both climate change amelioration and energy security); made significant investments in renewable energy, particularly in wind and hydro; inaugurated a solid program of renewable energy feed-in tariffs; made significant progress on energy conservation through Efficiency Nova Scotia; banned uranium mining; put any consideration of hydraulic fracturing under a responsible review process, and extended the moratorium on gas and oil drilling on Georges Bank indefinitely.

Forestry BillboardThe NDP bumped up the Environmental Goals and Prosperity Act's (EGSPA) 12%-by-2015 protected lands goal to 13%, and came up with a plan to make it happen. In the face of the collapse of the pulp and paper industry, they found a remarkable silver-lining in a dark cloud, supporting the "Buy Back the Mersey" program, thereby bringing 225,000 hectares of working forest and spectacular woodlands back into Nova Scotian hands and kick-starting a pioneering community forest initiative in which profits from the sustainable harvest and restoration of these lands can contribute to a revitalization of the rural economy.

In varying degrees, such accomplishments can be enumerated in a number of other sectors.

The problem is, there were also spectacular failures. After a promising start on forestry policy, the government abruptly shuffled popular Natural Resources Minister John MacDonell, who had a solid grasp of forestry issues, and the intestinal fortitude necessary to make changes to contentious clear-cutting and whole-tree cutting practices, out of the portfolio, thereby derailing the process and infuriating scores of grassroots environmentalists, native people, small woodlot owners, hunters, fishers, naturalists, and many others who care for and have a stake in the health and vibrancy of our forests. When, in June 2013, the government announced a ban on whole-tree harvesting, it was a step in the right direction, but long after the trust of many had been shaken. It may have been in instance of "too little, too late."

Similarly, the issue of open-net fin-fish aquaculture (a.k.a., salmon farming) was badly mishandled by the government. Despite a large body of scientific information that has documented environmental problems and disease issues associated with these ocean feedlots, the government showed no inclination to listen to environmentalists, coastal communities, and fishers who reacted with alarm to plans to site such facilities in a number of coastal localities (see "Down our throats: Fed-up with salmon feedlots" for more information).

What was seen as a $25-million corporate handout to Cook Aquaculture rubbed further salt into this wound. When environmentalists and activists in the party were on the cusp of passing a resolution against open-pen salmon aquaculture at the last NDP policy convention in February 2013, party apparatchiks mobilized to jury-rig a defeat of the motion, a ploy that infuriated many in the party who saw it (correctly in my view) as a slap in the face of legitimate and well-founded environmental concerns.

At last, realizing that environmental concerns really were a salient issue, and that opposition to salmon feedlots on the part of many coastal communities would not evaporate, the government appointed a credible panel spearheaded by two crackerjack environmental law experts from Dalhousie University, Meinhard Doelle and Bill Lahey, to examine the issue and draft new legislation to govern aquaculture development. It was clearly the right thing to do, but by this time, many concerned with the issue no longer trusted the government. In politics, as in much else, you don't get a second chance at making a first impression.

In varying degrees, such failures can be enumerated in a number of other sectors.

Corporate handouts

Halifax Convention CentreThe Halifax Convention Center, almost certainly destined to become an economic black-hole, bleeding provincial and municipal governments for decades to come (and if financially viable, should have been relegated to the private sector), is not only a bad economic investment ($51 million by both the provincial and municipal governments) it will further lose on the order of $220 million over the 25-year term of the deal. Moreover, it was rammed through despite significant popular opposition (including that of many in the NDP caucus) and was seen (quite correctly, in my view) as a corporate handout (see "Convention Centre in Nova Scotia: Economic Wellspring of Bottomless Pit?" for further information). Dexter's handling of this fiasco was anything but dexterous.

Particularly egregious for many New Democrats, and many Nova Scotians, was the $260-million forgivable loan that the government awarded to Irving Shipyards to upgrade their facility as part of the $25-billion federal contract to build navy vessels in Halifax. 

Now, there is a case to be made that  government should be pro-active in spurring job-generation, and the Dexter government countered that the "loan" was tied to job creation and would, through tax revenues, be a net benefit to the province. However … it is not demonstrably clear that Irving Shipyards required this money to undertake the project, and if bridge financing was required, why not a repayable loan? Correct or not, this looks like corporate welfare on a grand scale, and activists inside and outside the party were aghast. Such actions smack of neo-liberalism and bear little resemblance to a social-democratic agenda. Indeed, the Dexter government's entire "Ships Start Here" propaganda campaign, an obvious attempt to bask in the reflected limelight of a federal program, grated many by its sheer disingenuousness. Commentators agreed that a distinguishing feature of the awarding of the contract was that it had been free of political interference, making a mockery of the Nova Scotia governments febrile attempts to claim credit for bringing home this $25 billion cash cow.

On a series of issues over the span of the last four years, progressive activists within the NDP and outside of the party formed the impression that the NDP had lost its social-democratic roots. Many laudable accomplishments continued, but there were blunders as well, attributable (in my view) to the absence of an ideological compass by what many party members referred to as the ruling "Politburo."

It is important to emphasize that the NDP caucus was not monolithic on these issues. Over the past four years I have come to know many of them and, in my estimation, they included a substantial number progressive social-democrats, most of whom, perhaps not coincidentally, were not in the cabinet.

Darrell Dexter

Darrell Dexter conceding defeatI genuinely like Darrell Dexter. Over the past decade, I've spoken, written, interviewed, met with, and lobbied him scores of times on a plethora of topics. We've watched basketball games together and traded hoop anecdotes. He's been unfailingly kind and gracious. I've written blunt criticisms of the government; he's taken the time to read them and respond. He needn't have bothered, but he did. I haven't the slightest doubt that he cares deeply about this province and its people, and his political career is a clear testament to that commitment. From the "conservative-progressive" place that he feels he occupies on the political spectrum, his accomplishments are many and significant. Nevertheless, as premier, I think he made a serious political error by sidelining the activist, progressive, assiduously social-democratic wing of the party. In this, his inner-circle of advisers also need to take responsibility.

The NDP, like any substantive political party, is a big tent and encompasses people of a diversity of political views, from avowedly radical and socialist to those of a Dexterian "conservative-progressive" inclination. Properly situated, the NDP "captures" the full dynamism of the social-democratic movement, and it requires that diversity, and the debate, discussion, and even dissention that such a plurality of views brings, to remain a vital political force. A vibrant political party requires its idealists and pragmatists to push and prod the dimensions of issues that confront it, hammering out consensus positions that balance principles and practicalities, retaining the essential policy while rolling with the inevitable political punches.

In my experience, the New Democratic Party in Nova Scotia has that diversity and is also able to draw into its ranks non-partisan activists who recognize the valuable nature of particular initiatives and are willing to contribute to their realization. Over the last four years, however, that full diversity has not been fully heard at the cabinet table.

On the day after the 2013 election, in a whimsically titled session called "The future of the Status Quo: The left after the NS election" held at Kings College, former-MLA Howard Epstein (who did not re-offer in the 2013 election) gave, by way of example, an instructive litany of bills which had been had been introduced to the Nova Scotia legislature during the NDP's time in opposition, on matters that subsequently dropped off the legislative radar when the NDP came to power.

The bills dealt with important aspects of core social-democratic principles (for example corporate handouts and conditions of work) -- and many had been introduced into the legislature by then Leader of the Opposition, Darrell Dexter. As Epstein pointed out, these were not private-members bills coming out of left field, this was NDP caucus legislation, designed to clearly communicate the values of the NDP and to indicate to present and prospective supporters, what the future legislative agenda of the NDP would be if it came to power. For these to drop into oblivion once the party had been elected broke a pact, both with NDP members and the general public. The more so for the following reason:

NDP cabinet being sworn inIf there was one clear message that emerged from the 2009 election, which gave the NDP a majority government, it was that Nova Scotians were well and truly tired of the same-old, same-old. They had had literally centuries of alternating Tory and Grit administrations that had exhausted the vitality and credibility of both parties. The NDP was an utterly untested entity in Nova Scotia politics and the populace gave it a solid majority mandate, based not on any track record of governance, but rather on the promise of what the NDP had indicated it would do, coupled with a deep weariness with unfulfilled promises of past governments. It is hard to imagine a political administration in Nova Scotia that ever had a more solid and emphatic mandate for significant change. I would venture to suggest that a consequential portion of the dissatisfaction that took the government out of office was born of the apprehension -- sometimes justified and sometimes not -- that that such change had not been realized. From a series of vantages, the political landscape looked remarkably like the same-old, same-old.

Debt, deficit, and taxation

Debt, deficit, and taxation provide an instructive illustration. Although promising not to raise taxes before it was elected in 2009, the NDP government found itself in financial hot water, and nine months after its election, it raised the provincial portion of the HST by two percentage points, conveniently counterbalancing the cuts to the HST by the Harper Conservatives. Although excoriated by opposition Liberals and Conservatives, the increase (a 'broken promise') carried (in my view) no real political cost for the NDP. The financial picture was clearly presented, the case persuasively made by then Finance Minister Graham Steele, Nova Scotians understood the difficult circumstances we were in, and the "tax hike" passed with scarcely a ripple. A day later, it had fallen off the political radar. And not inconsequentially, the $380 million a year in additional revenues played a not-insignificant role in helping the government improve its debt to GDP ratio and balance the budget by 2013. Yet:

1) Despite the relative austerity of this first NDP mandate, which did involve belt-tightening and reductions in programming;

2) An increase in Nova Scotia's net debt by $1.7 billion to a total of $14 billion; and

3) Annual debt service costs of $882 million;

NS Debt to GDP Ratio

The NDP nonetheless then vowed that it would cut the HST by one percentage point in 2014, and a second in 2015, lopping $380 million a year out of government revenues; money that could have been used to support programming, help pay down the accumulated debt (thus decreasing debt-servicing costs) or a combination of both. And, as the tax increase had no political cost for the NDP, so the promise of tax cuts brought the government no political credit.

It's parenthetically noteworthy that in the 2013 provincial election, both the NDP and the Progressive Conservatives vowed to cut taxes  -- and both parties lost the election. The Liberals, in contrast, have been much more circumspect, saying only that they will cut taxes in the future only when there is a sufficient budget surplus (leaving undefined what 'sufficient' means) -- and they won a majority government.

I don't wish to suggest that the outcome of the election was solely attributable to this single difference, but it does draw into question the accepted neo-liberal nostrum that promising to cut taxes is always an electorally popular measure. It seems that this demonization of taxation as a legitimate way by which governments derive revenue to conduct programs of benefit to all, is not such a seductive narcotic as the champions of neo-liberalism would lead us to believe.

What I do wish to suggest is that a platform that prominently advocates tax-cuts as one of its key commitments can hardly be construed as reflecting social-democratic values. This is an affront to many progressive activists, and reflects the degree to which the architects of the NDP's electoral strategy were out of touch with the values of this constituency of the party. 

In my view, these and other blunders cost the NDP, both the enthusiasm of a not insignificant fraction of the party's membership, and credibility amongst the unaligned "swing" voters of the province upon whom much depends in every election.

Poverty, Environment, and the Creative Economy: Lost electoral opportunities

CCPA Cost of Poverty reportAnother example of the Dexter government's misunderstanding of the political lay of the land was provided by Epstein at the "Future of the Status Quo" panel. As outlined above, the newly minted NDP government found it necessary to raise the HST. As a regressive measure, value-added taxes disproportionately affect those of lower-incomes since they spend a greater fraction of what they do earn buying the necessities of life, most of which are taxable. To counterbalance that, the NDP introduced the Affordable Living Tax Credit, a credible social-democratic response to such concerns. Kudos to the NDP for doing so.

The more so, since, as Epstein was able to inform the audience, Finance Department officials calculated that the increases in HST would cost lower-income Nova Scotians approximately $50 million annually, whereas the number crunchers had calculated that the Affordable Living Tax Credit would actually put $70 million back into their pockets -- a net gain and a tangible measure towards poverty reduction. Again, full credit to the NDP.

However … what Epstein was able to tell the audience was that the party leadership determined the government would not publicize this because of the apprehension that assistance to lower income people doesn't sell well with the middle classes. Now, this is a remarkably foolish and conflicted decision on the part of a social-democratic party. It not only fails to communicate important information pertaining to what the government has actually done, it also leaves the apprehension amongst party members, poverty-reduction advocates, and the general public, that the party has failed to address a legitimate concern.

At the beginning of May 2013, at the last NDP AGM, the party rolled out a draft of its election platform to party members for their feedback, comments, and suggestions. I wrote to the election policy wallahs to point out that what was conspicuous by its absence was any focus on the environment, energy, and climate change accomplishments of the government (see above: The NDP Record), nor of its track record in the sphere of arts, culture, and the creative economy (see "Nova Scotia: The NDP's support for the Arts."). In both domains there were significant accomplishments that could, and should, be part of the record on which the NDP ran. That both these areas offered opportunities for the NDP to distinguish its policies and performance from its opponents. Some of the wallahs replied, however, none of this made its way into the NDP election platform. I've no idea what the reasoning for these omissions was.

Electoral causalities and collateral damage

Election Results

It's my impression (admittedly based primarily on personal and anecdotal information) that, despite disappointments, most NDP members and supporters stayed with the party in the 2013 election. Some were genuinely impressed, others balanced the positive with the negative or took a long view that Rome was not built in a day, while others still held their noses at the ballot boxes. The Liberals and Progressive Conservatives represented even more unpalatable alternatives. Support for the fractured and fractious Green Party collapsed from 2.3% in 2009 to 0.9% in 2013 indicating no flow of disaffected NDP supporters to the Greens. Voter turnout improved ever so slightly from a low of 58% in 2009 to 58.9% in 2013, down, incidentally from a high of 82% in 1960, an illustration of the democratic malaise that afflicts all Canadian elections, mired as they are in a hyper-partisan swamp created (in part) by the increasingly dysfunctional and archaic First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) electoral system (see "Canadian political calculus: Zero-sum or win-win?" for further information).

In this regard it is instructive to note that while the NDP received slightly more of the popular vote than the Tories, the Conservatives were awarded 11 seats for their efforts while the NDP ended up with only seven, another illustration of democratic distortions created courtesy of First-Past-The-Post.

Causalities of this implosion included an extraordinary group of Nova Scotia legislators -- MLAs such as Pam Birdsall (Lunenburg), Gary Burrill (Colchester Musquodoboit), Ramona Jennex (Kings South), Jim Morton (Kings North), Sydney Prest (Eastern Shore), Leonard Preyra (Halifax Citadel - Sable Island), and Gary Ramey (Lunenburg West) -- many of whom I came to admire and respect as outstanding politicians deeply devoted to their ridings and their province; fair, generous, progressive, thoughtful, considered citizens who took seriously the notion of public service and worked assiduously towards genuinely bettering society.

NS Election Results

Collateral damage were an extraordinary group of fresh political faces including Gregor Ash (Halifax Chebucto), Andre Cain (Preston-Dartmouth), Tanis Crosby (Halifax Atlantic), Steve Estey (Dartmouth North), Abad Khan (Fairview-Clayton Park), Drew Moore (Halifax Armdale), and Mary Vingoe (Dartmouth South) -- all running in ridings with no political incumbents. An ultra-talented and diverse group, none of them had ever run in a provincial election and under normal circumstances their track-records and skills sets should have assured them a seat under a single-term incumbent political administration running for re-election. Instead, this suite of newcomers, in many ways the future of the party, all went down to defeat.

For the sake of the political future of the NDP in Nova Scotia, I hope that all of these former MLAs and aspiring candidates remain active in the process of determining the party's future.

The Dexter NDP government is now history and Dexter himself lost his Cole Harbour-Portland Valley seat to a political neophyte, Tony Ince, an indication of just how low Dexter's political fortunes have fallen. Dexter had built his Cole Harbour base into a formidable NDP bastion, winning the 2009 election with a commanding absolute majority of 68.8%. In truth, the slippage began over a year ago when Liberal support began to rise and the NDP's began to decline. Going into the election, support for Dexter's leadership was running at 20% compared to the 35% of Nova Scotians who thought that Liberal leader Stephen McNeil would make the best premier (Tory leader Jamie Baillie was just behind Dexter with 19% of support). This was a very sizeable drop from the 50% of Nova Scotians who supported Dexter's leadership after the 2009 election.

NDP campaign workers I spoke with privately admitted that circulating election materials with Dexter's image on it was proving counterproductive, his popularity a drag on that of the party itself. As such, I think that in many ridings a case could be made that the election results reflected the candidate's personal credibility and strength based on their constituency work, rather than support for the party as a whole. Indeed, NDP incumbents such as Pam Birdsall (Lunenburg), Jim Boudreau (Guysborough, Eastern Shore, Tracadie), Ramona Jennex (Kings South), Becky Kent (Cole Harbour-Eastern Passage), Jim Morton (Kings North), Charlie Parker (Pictou West), and Matt Whynott (Sackville-Beaverbank) all achieved very strong second-place positions, just back of the winning candidates in their ridings.

Blood on the floor?

Will there be blood on the floor in the coming weeks and months? There may well be. The successes and failures of the last four years, and of the 2013 election campaign will inevitably be a central topic of debate and discussion for months, and perhaps years into the future. And that is as it should be, since if the party is to learn from these experiences, building on strengths and not repeating errors, it's going to have to analyze and clearly determine what went right, what went wrong, and how not to repeat past blunders. I've no idea how this will unfold.

There may be some attempts to blame the activist, progressive constituency of the NDP (i.e., "If you'd only stuck with us and tightened ranks we could have pulled-off another victory and then we would have gotten around to unaddressed agenda items"). Justin Trudeau and "Trudeau-mania 2013" may be invoked, an obvious red herring given that NDP popularity was dropping long before Trudeau was elected as federal Liberal party leader. While his visits to Nova Scotia were undoubtedly helpful to Liberal leader Stephen McNeil, the support they shored-up was largely that of Liberal party members themselves. People may talk of a "red tide" that was impossible to staunch (forgetting that this is a description of events and not an explanation), or a mysterious electoral yearning for "change". Such excuses can be made to fit all circumstances and are about as useful as a colander for drinking the water of political truth. Like the pots and pans of the Casseroles movement, they can create a din, but within the noise there is little to be heard. 

In conceding defeat, Dexter said "This is a difficult time. The economy is difficult. People are feeling stressed and I think when you're in government you become the focus of that," an empty formulation that avoids the teachable moments of the election.

Aquaculture ProtestAll these would be diversions from what I believe is the fundamental lesson of this political episode, which is that the strength of the NDP is as a party based firmly and unabashedly on its social-democratic policies and principles. If elected (as they were in Nova Scotia in 2009) they are elected based on that perception by citizens who are prepared to go out on a political limb and commit to trying a social-democratic approach to governance. Thus, the elected party has both a mandate and a responsibility to live up to such expectations and promises. Attempting to equivocate, or for the sake of temporary political expediency, adopting liberal, neo-liberal, Red-Tory or other political agendas will not meet expectations; certainly not those of many in the party's rank and file, nor will it cut bait amongst the electorate as a whole.

The lessons of 2013 are that on some fronts the NDP made significant blunders (i.e., tax cuts, corporate handouts, aquaculture policy, clear-cutting policy, etc.). On others, it failed to effectively communicate what it had achieved (i.e., the Affordable Living Tax Credit, renewable energy, Buy Back the Mersey, hard caps on GHG emissions, the re-establishment of an Arts Council, Status of the Artist legislation, the Support4Culture program, etc.). Moreover, this failure was not inconsequential. The process of exercising governance also provides a critical opportunity to build support for it. If one is to convince voters that social-democracy is an effective political vehicle, then every act of government should be crafted as seen through this lens. Every opportunity should be utilized to develop programs and policies that reflect core values and effectively communicate what is being done and why. Political power offers a peerless opportunity for political education, not one instant of which should be squandered.

The lessons of 2013 are that if we want to bring social-democratic governance to Nova Scotia we need to have a party willing to stand firmly on its principles, letting the electoral chips fall as they inevitably may. Chasing votes for reasons of political expediency has demonstrably failed, perhaps less so for the particular policies adopted or not, but because of the confused apprehension it created of what the NDP stood for -- a confusion that disaffected both party faithful and non-aligned voters once willing to give the party a chance, now perplexed as to where the government was taking them. If we can make effective use of these lessons, then the mistakes of the past four years will not have been for naught.

Christopher Majka is an ecologist, environmentalist, policy analyst, and writer. He is the director of Natural History Resources and Democracy: Vox Populi.

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