NDP takes Nova Scotia politics to a higher plane

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The buzz lately is about the new Conservative leader, Jamie Baillie, who by all accounts is a sound fellow. What are the prospects for him and his party? With three parties jockeying, asking that question is almost the same as asking where our politics are going generally -- and notably how the NDP government is doing, its success or failure determining how the opposition will do.

The answer to that key question is that the NDP is actually doing quite well, getting its act together and digging in after a shaky first year. It has studies and reviews going on just about everything and, barring the unforeseen, will be a formidable foe by the next election. For the opposition parties, the old tricks are no longer of any use. To oppose effectively and challenge for power, they'll have to be more educated than ever before on all these files, not to mention having to have their own houses in order and being able to argue convincingly that their return to power would not be a return to the old politics.

In other words, now that the smoke from the MLA expenses scandal has lifted, it can be seen that our politics, appearances to the contrary, are out of the basement and on a higher plane than before -- which is presumably what we wanted with the overthrow of the old order that brought the NDP to power.

Indeed, here's something to chew on. Whatever else it does, the NDP had accomplished much even before it came to office. Its rise was propelled by the endemic patronage and corruption that had bedeviled our politics for centuries, but that had come to a head again in the past 30 years -- the same stuff that Joseph Howe struggled against but only dented and that several enlightened premiers tilted against with little effect. That problem was largely put to rest during John Hamm's Conservative government, but the NDP was the instrument that pounded it down. This is no longer a bee in our bonnet. Amen to that.

Meanwhile, the NDP has certain situational advantages. This cabinet may be the soundest one Nova Scotia has seen, for the simple reason that it's free to govern, not to mention being highly educated. In former times, in my estimation, only about half the cabinet was made up of people who were both competent and publicly spirited. The other half belonged to people whose credentials were mainly in local political manipulation, and were the main carriers of influence-tainted politics.

And within the NDP cabinet, three are having a particular effect: Graham Steele, finance; John MacDonell, resources and agriculture; and Ross Landry, justice. The reason they catch my attention is that they've come out at key turning points to explain what they're doing on the tricky issues, face to face with their public. That is, they've been explaining the process -- Steele on the budget with his provincial hearings, MacDonell on the forestry and mink industry issue, Landry on prisons. Not that you and I need to agree with the result of the process, but when the process is explained, it reduces the suspicion that the fix is on in secret. It raises confidence in government. I think that's happening by slow degrees.

What these ministers are also doing, perhaps inadvertently, is sending a message to those within government who have a big problem with the media, figuring they never get it right with the fly-by headlines and 10-second clips. The fact is that government gets decent press when cabinet ministers personally explain what they're doing, and in a non-political way.

I'd like to see more of it -- in health, for example, or education or social services -- although, granted, some ministries (health, energy) are devilishly complex, and some ministers are better at explaining than others. I'm waiting in particular, to see how it turns in that regard with minister Bill Estabrooks and the Halifax convention centre, in which a decision is imminent but the public has been promised another lick at the new plan.

For the opposition parties, then, their work is cut out. In the latest poll, it's true, the Liberals were almost in a statistical tie with the NDP and leader Stephen McNeil, whose fortunes have improved perhaps beyond his wildest dreams, is slightly ahead of Premier Darrell Dexter in popular esteem. But that's an illusion. The Liberals have still neither reconstructed their electoral machinery, nor come up with an alternative policy. The latter, in fact, will have to wait until the full meaning of the NDP's rule is clear and what its shortcomings are.

As for Jaimie Baillie, as leader of the third party his uphill climb seems especially long. Particularly since what he's putting forth are various ideas for stimulating business. He can be certain that if there's anything that looks promising in his plans, it will pop up in one of Graham Steele's budgets long before any election.

Ralph Surette is a veteran freelance journalist living in Yarmouth County. This article was originally published in The Chronicle Herald.

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