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After Dexter loss, can the NDP ever win in Canada?

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Image: wikipedia commons

And then there was one. With the crushing defeat this week of Darrell Dexter's NDP government in Nova Scotia, Manitoba alone among Canada's 13 provinces and territories carries the NDP banner. But in typical Manitoba fashion, it does so with much discretion. Most Canadians probably have no idea the NDP governs there at all.

Believe it or not, at one time or another, B.C., Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Nova Scotia and Yukon all elected NDP governments. And for two magical periods, three provinces were NDP at the same time. In both periods -- the early 1970s and the late 1990s -- B.C., Saskatchewan and Manitoba all boasted NDP governments.

Now, alas, the prospect for such a trifecta in any foreseeable future seems utopian.

It's not entirely easy to explain, but there are clues. For the four provinces besides Nova Scotia that have ever elected NDP governments, two completely opposite electoral patterns emerged over the decades. In the agreeable tradition, in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, the NDP wins repeatedly. In the lamentable tradition -- B.C. and Ontario -- either the NDP premier or the entire government is gone after a single term. Nova Scotians chose the wrong tradition.

Should I pretend to be more objective here? In his new book, Paikin and the Premiers, a must-read for his legions of fans in all parties, TVO's Steve Paikin and a bevy of past Ontario premiers all insist that the people are never wrong when they vote governments in or out. I'm sure Mr. Paikin really believes it. I'd bet the mortgage that in private, the premiers really don't. I'm with them.

So I'm deeply disheartened that Darrell Dexter followed the Ontario pattern only too closely. In 1990, under once-upon-a-time New Democrat Bob Rae, the NDP won government in Ontario for the first and only time. Five years later, the party was unceremoniously thrown out, regressing all the way from first place to last. Now in Nova Scotia, where Mr. Dexter formed the first-ever NDP government in 2009, the party similarly collapsed all the way back to third place, Mr. Dexter losing his own seat in the rout.

British Columbia, in its typically quirky way, has had a similar relationship with the NDP, with either its Premiers or its governments unable to survive beyond a single term. Dave Barrett swept the 1972 election for the NDP and a mere three years was unceremoniously turfed out. Not till 16 years later did the NDP win again in B.C. Over the next decade, three NDP Premiers held office. The first, Mike Harcourt, resigned before fighting another election. Glen Clark took over, won his first election, and resigned. Ujjal Dosanjh took over and soon lost his only election. Only in B.C., you say?

If only Nova Scotia had followed the enlightened tradition of Saskatchewan and Manitoba. In both, the CCF-NDP's been the natural governing party for decades. In Saskatchewan, the party was in office for two-thirds of the years since its first victory under Tommy Douglas in 1944, 47 years altogether.

The NDP first won government in Manitoba and there too has held office for about two-thirds of the time since, a total of 29 years and counting. Unlike Saskatchewan, they're still there.

Once this pattern is discerned, the rest should be obvious. All Darrell Dexter needed to do was to discover the Manitoba/ Saskatchewan secret and B.C. and Ontario's Achilles heel. But here's the rub. No one knows what works and what doesn't. Each leader (even Bob Rae, back then) was fully committed to the party's ideals of social justice and equality, although implementation depended on circumstances. Saskatchewan's political culture has as many differences from Manitoba as it has commonalities. Nova Scotia, like every province, has its own distinct political traditions. And it's not clear that the Saskatchewan NDP's secret even works for Saskatchewan any more.

We know that Dave Barrett's exuberance worked once but not twice in B.C. NDP leader Adrian Dix pointedly ran in the last B.C. election as the anti-Barrett and blew a 20-point lead. Tommy Douglas was folksy; Allan Blakeney, his successor, was cerebral; Roy Romanow was schmaltzy. Each won three elections. Both Manitoba and Saskatchewan NDP governments have been prudent governors and efficient administrators. Darrell Dexter, like Bob Rae in Ontario 23 years ago, faced a terrible recession that made many of his promises unachievable.

Commenting during the campaign, Cape Breton University political science professor David Johnson judged that "Dexter has done as well as anyone could possibly do, given the situation he had to deal with." That's pretty high praise. But somehow it wasn't good enough for most Nova Scotians. There, like most everywhere else, the NDP seems unable to escape its reputation for being dicey economic managers, and even terrible recessions are no excuse. Time and again, Bob Rae's wildly-exaggerated record of economic incompetence in Ontario trumps the party's solid record in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Thomas Mulcair has his work cut out for him.

This article originally appeared in The Globe and Mail.

Image: wikipedia commons


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