Hope betrayed? The Nova Scotia NDP's rocky fall from power

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If the NDP can't differentiate itself from other parties, should it exist?

In Rise Again, author and former MLA for Halifax Chebucto Howard Epstein gives us his explanation, in irrepressible detail, of why the Nova Scotia NDP fell from power in 2013 after only one term in office.

Epstein believes the NDP won the election that brought it to power in 2009 because Nova Scotians were ready for a social democratic government and an end to the cozy relationship between government and business that had characterized Nova Scotian politics for too long.

Based on the NDP's proposals for legislation while in opposition, Nova Scotians believed this progressive change is what they were going to get.

However, after the 2009 NDP win, the new premier, Darrell Dexter, and his inner circle sent a clear message that the government wouldn't be rocking the boat when he formed his Cabinet. Epstein, an articulate social democrat, labour lawyer, environmentalist and popular Halifax councillor that was five times re-elected to the Provincial Legislature was shut out of Premier Dexter's Cabinet in both 2009 and 2012, during the reshuffle.

Nova Scotians officially rejected the NDP in 2013, but party members had started resigning early in its mandate. In 2012, with the next election on the horizon, various cabinet and other caucus members, including Epstein, announced they would not seek re-election.

Though the NDP still had 27 per cent of the popular vote at its defeat, it was reduced to third-party status and was without vision, bleeding members, and almost bankrupt.

So what happened?

Epstein suggests that the NDP's path to defeat in 2013 was set even before its 2009 victory. The book's appendices, provided online as well, include his assessments and warnings to the party since 2003, demonstrating why the party was not ready to govern in 2009.

And, it didn't help that a number of the new NDP MLAs were also new to the party and unfamiliar with its policies.

The party got off to a bad start with its election promise to balance the budget without raising taxes. That promise, difficult to honour during a period of general economic turmoil, would seriously limit its policy options. It was a mistake, Epstein thinks, that could have been avoided had Dexter and his staff had a stronger grasp of economic development and fiscal issues.

Wishing to send an early message that it would govern boldly, the new government supported a private developer's proposal for a new convention centre and hotel/office tower complex in downtown Halifax, a project of the previous government. It did so against strong evidence that the convention centre wasn't needed and against strong opposition from Halifax party members.

Another mistake followed when the government withdrew its subsidy from the Yarmouth ferry.

Then there was also an MLA expenses scandal with the premier's pugnacious self defence of his own infractions, undermining public confidence in his integrity.

During the NDP's four years in office, according to Epstein, it lurched "from one crisis to another." Its bailouts to the pulp and paper industry saved jobs but, like the Yarmouth ferry decision, weren't part of long-term strategies.

In what seemed like blind efforts to create more jobs, Dexter's government gave loans and subsidies to big out-of-province corporations. It subsidized open-pen aquaculture. It gave a large loan, mostly forgivable, to Irving Shipbuilding, a company owned by the wealthiest family in Atlantic Canada.

Epstein writes knowledgeably about a broad range of policy areas. He gives credit to the NDP government and to individual cabinet ministers where he felt credit is due and provides an extensive chapter on carbon, climate change, and Nova Scotia Power. His excellent section on labour issues documents 40 years of changes to labour legislation in the province.

Perhaps Epstein's greatest concern, and a recurring theme in the book, was about the government's lack of vision and policies for addressing the problems of marginalized Nova Scotians living in poverty.

There are some things Epstein misses or leaves his reader wondering about.

For example, had it been better prepared for governance the NDP would have known which Deputy Ministers to replace and with whom. Epstein tells us there were worried MLAs who discussed the NDP's ongoing missteps and challenges, but were they too intimidated by the bullying and belittling he describes from the premier's office to demand things be done differently?

And why did party members just turn their backs, sending in their exasperated letters of resignation one-by-one, rather than expressing their concerns collectively?

Epstein does talk about dissent in the party, focusing on a letter signed in mid-2012 by some 50 members. Had those signing the letter remained active through the NDP's tenure in government on party committees and Provincial Council, would it have made any difference?

According to Epstein's book, Dexter blamed party members for the NDP's 2013 defeat. Given how Dexter's staff -- directly or through the Provincial Secretary and executive officers -- manipulated and controlled the membership and how its actions and policie ultimately alienated so many, what could he expect?

Will the party members who have left return? Will they move to the Greens? Or will they start a new party?

For Epstein, if the Nova Scotia NDP can't differentiate itself from the other provincial parties there is really no reason for it to exist.

Rise Again is an excellent read and it is flying off the shelves of Nova Scotia's bookstores. Read a copy today!


Joy Woolfrey is a social planning and policy consultant who co-chaired the NS NDP's Policy Committee during its first three years in government.

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