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Nova Scotia's NDP scores a decisive victory

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NDP MLA-elect, Lisa Roberts

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A Nova Scotia day dawns like any other...but yet not quite. Today Nova Scotia has a new legislator from the riding of Halifax Needham. On August 30 the New Democratic Party's Lisa Roberts won a resounding victory in a byelection to replace former NDP MLA (and former interim NDP leader) Maureen MacDonald who resigned from politics on April 12 of this year.

Roberts won a relative landslide taking 2,529 votes compared to the Liberals' Rod Wilson (1,662), the Progressive Conservative's Andy Arsenault (600), and the Green Party's Thomas Trappenberg (161) -- 50.97 per cent of the vote and an absolute majority (Figure 1).

Halifax Needham By-election Results

The result doesn't change any balance of power in the Legislature -- the Liberals have a commanding majority, nor any more subtle calculus. This is a long-time NDP seat that has now been retained by the NDP. However, it certainly puts wind in the sails of the NDP in the face of the profoundly neoliberal, austerity regime that has become the face of the Stephen McNeil Liberal government. 

The Liberals, who recruited high-profile candidate Rod Wilson, a physician and executive director of the North End Community Health Centre, had nothing to lose in the election (this being a seat long held by the NDP), however, their support actually eroded from the 40.40 per cent that Liberal candidate Chris Poole gleaned in the 2013 provincial election to the 33.56 per cent that Wilson received, a dismal thumbs down that is probably as much a reflection of the general unpopularity of McNeil in Metro Halifax as it is a judgment on candidate Wilson.

Although Nova Scotia has been in the grip of pre-election fever (well, perhaps fever is somewhat hyperbolic -- we have at least experienced some elevated temperature) with all three political parties at various stages of nominating candidates in all 51 political constituencies in the province and there was speculation that Premier Stephen McNeil might call an early snap election this fall (it has been three years since the last election; the normal period between elections under a majority government being four years).

The by-election in Halifax Needham, however, appears to show the Premier's electoral hand. While a late fall election would still be possible (an early fall election is out of the question because municipal election campaigns across Nova Scotia are just beginning in advance of an October 15 election date), this would entail sending the voters of Halifax Needham to the polls twice within a matter of a few weeks -- a highly unlikely prospect, particularly given that the Premier (had he wished to call a fall election) could have deferred the call for a by-election in Halifax Needham until October 12, and then eclipsed the by-election by dropping a general writ after the municipal elections on October 15.

What this does strongly suggest, however, is a spring, 2017 provincial election since by early this fall all political parties, Liberals included, will have a full slate of candidates in place. Keeping all of them in suspended animation for a year until a fall 2017 election is possible but unlikely. Keeping the electoral machine on hot idle for extended periods is inefficient and counterproductive.

 Support for Political Parties

In the past three years the Liberals have done their level best to insult, aggravate, and alienate virtually every constituency in the province -- environmentalists, educators, health-care professionals, the film industry, organized labour -- the list goes on and on. However, the Liberals have continued to ride high in the polls since June 2012 when they overtook the then Dexter NDP government (Figure 2). It has been a continuous rise that saw them win majority government in the October 2013 provincial election. Despite three years of uninspired, regressive, and scandal-ridden governance, neither the Progressive Conservatives under the leadership of Jamie Ballie, nor the NDP, under the interim leadership of Maureen MacDonald, did much to put a dent in their rising popularity.

The only departure from this trend was during the summer of 2015 when a growing scandal developed as a result of the Liberal's decision to kill the province's film tax credit (See: Stake through the heart: Liberals kill the Nova Scotia film industry and Straight through the heart: Liberals take aim at Nova Scotia's economy). This caused a sizeable decline in Liberal support, from 64 per cent to 50 per cent, with a corresponding increase in the support of the NDP, which was on the forefront of opposing this draconian measure that pointlessly eviscerated one of Nova Scotia's most prominent economic success stories. The storm of protest around this dumb-as-dirt policy lead (in part) to the election of the NDP's Marian Mancini in the riding of Dartmouth South in a July 2015 by-election (following the death of Liberal MLA Allan Rowe) where Mancini eked-out a narrow (35.25 per cent to 33.99 per cent) victory over the Liberals represented by Tim Rissesco.

Nonetheless by December of that year Liberal numbers rebounded to former levels, in large measure at the expense of the NDP.

It's been a long bleak era for progressive social-democratic politics in Nova Scotia, but a decisive corner was turned at the end of February this year when the NDP elected former MLA and full-bore progressive, Gary Burrill as the leader of the party (See: Nova Scotia New Democrats elect Gary Burrill as new leader).

NDP MLA-elect, Lisa Roberts

This change in direction of the NDP marks a clear return to progressive, social-democratic values (and away from the Dexter "conservative progressive" vision), which are also made manifest by the election of Lisa Roberts, a bright, vibrant, visionary woman who is a bona-fide community leader in Halifax Needham, a north-end peninsular community with great verve and community coherence. Roberts, a long-time resident of the riding, has been a catalyst in a whole gamut of community initiatives from:

Futures Roots, a social enterprise that trains, supervises and employs youth to provide service for older residents;

• The North End Community Circle, an initiative to build trust, relationships, social capital, and dialogue between residents in the North End of Halifax;

The North End Roundtable, a monthly space for North End service providers to connect in order to collaborate; and

• The North End Opportunities Fund, which enables low-income North End children to attend summer camps.

Lisa Roberts and familyUntil the by-election Roberts had been the executive director of Veith House, a stellar neighborhood hub that provides Halifax residents with a pre-school program, free counseling, group development services, trustee services (to provide financial management and budgeting support for low-income residents), a CAP site (Community Access Program) for computer and internet services, affordable yoga, program and meeting spaces, and other services that help build a vibrant, diverse, and resilient community. Five years as a researcher for CBC Radio gave Roberts a broad and background in a wealth of issues and outstanding communication skills, while being the mother of two young children has given her...well, all the life experience that being a parent provides. 

Lisa Roberts and Gary BurrillAlthough the balance of political power and legislative calculus are unaffected by this by-election, its real impact will be in having such an eloquent activist voice, not only in the legislature, but in her community and across the province. It's a clear marker of where the NDP is going as a political force under the leadership of Gary Burrill, a party that is firmly engaged in building social capital, in addressing economic and social injustice, in dealing with environmental issues, and in becoming a force for progressive social and political change in the province. Where this will lead is anyone's guess but the flags of change have been hoisted on the political ramparts of Nova Scotia. Who will heed the call in the coming days, weeks, months, and years remains not only to be seen, but to be forged. Roberts will clearly fly that banner and be a force for such change.

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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