Remembering the scandalous past to judge the future of Nova Scotia politics

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"Surely you'll agree that this is the worst government we've ever had."

So said a fellow I occasionally correspond with, a businessman on the Eastern Shore -- a Tory, he told me, but one who took the beau risque last election and voted NDP, and one who is now furious with the Dexter government over the open-pen salmon farm issue and other things.

Startled at the proposition, I answered: "You must be a young fellow who doesn't remember the mayhem of the Buchanan and Savage governments."

He wrote back: "Oh, yes. I forgot."

How easy to forget. But here's something to remember. The NDP is in power in Nova Scotia today -- an extraordinary fact, if you think about it -- because of the ruinous track record of the two other parties going back to the 1970s.

So if the main question is, "Does the NDP deserve four more years?" the question on the flipside is, "Should the miscreant parties be let out of the penalty box so soon?"

Maybe everybody hasn't forgotten. Maybe that's the torment implied by the 55 per cent undecided that showed up in the recent Corporate Associates poll. Maybe we're actually chewing on it pretty hard.

This flipside question applies particularly to the Liberals, well ahead in the poll among the 45 per cent who have what appears to be an opinion. It applies because the Liberal party has once again failed to drive a stake through the heart of the Dracula of Nova Scotia politics -- their tainted trust fund.

In my lengthy watch of Nova Scotia politics, I long ago concluded that fund was the prime mechanism in the process that destroyed the Liberal party in Halifax, broke up the two-party alternation and ultimately brought the NDP to power.

The fund, amounting to several million dollars, was raised in the 1970s from illegal rakeoffs from liquor store sales. When the Buchanan Conservatives won in 1980 and proceeded to blow money out of every window, starting the buildup of debt larded with scandal that has bedeviled every government since, the Liberals failed to dislodge them through four subsequent elections, mainly because of that trust fund and associated scandals.

Recently, the Liberals have tried to lay the thing to rest by creating an Ottawa-based think tank and laying down $2.2 million in it.

The NDP makes these charges: The think-tank is Ottawa-based to avoid disclosure under Nova Scotia laws; $1.6 million of it has been mysteriously hived off since Stephen McNeil became leader in 2006, and the attack ads against the NDP have likely been funded with it.

Whatever the little facts of the matter, the big fact is that it should be an old story now, but it's still undead and raising questions nearly 40 years later -- which must be a record in bad scandal management, and which must taint any claim the party makes to govern competently and transparently.

The rest of the story is that when the Liberals of Dr. John Savage finally did defeat the Conservatives in 1993, he made an honourable effort to right the ship.

The seas of debt and scandal left by the Tories, plus federal cuts, made that impossible; but worse, he was almost ejected from the premiership by his own base for refusing to fire the Tory foremen on the roads, underlining the hillbilly politics still alive in the party.

Tory John Hamm won by surprise in 1999, and made some headway in stabilizing things. His government melted down under new premier Rodney MacDonald when he left.

The Tories, although their Buchanan government forbear was the prime instrument of ruination, are dragging no long-term taint equivalent to the trust fund -- only the more usual political debacle, now more or less forgotten, that was the government the NDP defeated.

It must be the occasion of some internal soul-searching that it's the Liberals, and not they, who are challenging the NDP. However, John Hamm brought the Tories from third-party status to victory in 1999, and everything is in the air.

Our politics have stabilized further under the NDP. With the holy grail of Nova Scotia politics -- the balanced budget -- more or less attained, the NDP should be ready to breeze into a second term.

That it's not is because the premier has practised politics like a rhinoceros in a lingerie shop, leading with the horn.

What it looks like to me now is minority government, NDP or other, and more or less all three parties in the penalty box as we resume our heavy grumbling.

Stay tuned.

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

Photo: Sean_Marshall/flickr

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