Is Nova Scotia politics heading back into the same old stewpot?

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To anyone concerned about the stability of government in this province -- the basic condition before anything else can be usefully addressed -- this is not a very happy election campaign.

The Liberal Party is running one of the shallowest and most deceptive campaigns I've ever seen. It is not only implicitly promising to take the painfully gradual improvements to our politics achieved through the John Hamm Progressive-Conservative premiership and now through the NDP and throw them out the window, but is being egged on in that by spectacularly high poll numbers that raise questions again about our bad political culture and whether we're addicted to negativity.

There have been several televised debates. To anyone watching them from the point of view of substance rather than mere performance, Liberal Leader Stephen McNeil has lost them all and Premier Darrell Dexter has won them all -- but the Liberal numbers kept rising.

Dexter's desperate narrative is, alas, the only coherent one in this whole thing. He's pointing to progress in some domains and admitting to mistakes (itself a novelty in politics) in others that he's promising to address in a second mandate, especially now that the budget is tentatively balanced.

The Liberals were surprised a little over a year ago by a poll putting them in the game and have been madly stitching up policy since. They've hit onto some superficial hot buttons -- health, power rates, corporate incentives -- but when questioned about the implications, McNeil reverts to his set rhetoric, avoids the question, and in fact sounds like a tired old incumbent back on his heels.

There have been some vaguely useful points exchanged on corporate incentives and the trades apprenticeships program, but health care and energy have been utterly trivialized by the opposition parties. Other big issues -- poverty, environment, the federal link (that the Harper government is actually encouraging our depopulation), that sticky issue of open-pen salmon farming -- have made hardly any appearance.

On health care, the iconic issue, the Liberal position is unconscionable. As a probable government, in order to move the province ahead, it would have to admit that the NDP has made important progress, but not enough, and elaborate a plan to move it further. Instead, it wants to chuck it all out and start all over with a scheme to trash the regional health boards and create a superboard in Halifax. Dexter has the backing of the experts in this: it's a scheme to return to upset and chaos. Besides, the NDP has already reduced administration costs by some 23 per cent and promises more, and administration is a minor part of health costs. Fretting about administration, as health reformer Dr. John Ross has put it, simply diverts attention from the real problems.

On energy, the obsession with power rates has infantilized the energy debate, which wasn't all that inspiring to begin with. An election campaign to my liking would have made this understandable even to 10-year-olds: Nova Scotia (and P.E.I.) have little or no hydroelectricity, are destined to have higher rates for the forseeable future, and the challenge is to get around this, not deny it.

Despite all this, Liberals have continued to fly high. I have to believe that, apart from the NDP's problems -- most self-inflicted -- there's a general Liberal breeze blowing from the federal expanses, and McNeil is in the sweet spot. Justin Trudeau is hovering over this, and these results will register in Ottawa.

Apart from balancing the budget, the NDP has at least stabilized the health-care system so it can move forward, and has also tightened up the civil service generally and, in my estimation, improved its motivation in most departments. That's invisible stuff you don't get thanked for, but vital for functioning government.

Dexter dreamed of creating a Manitoba-style dynasty of stable government with a second term in which he would enjoy the fruits of a balanced budget, and the loose ends could be set right. Indeed, imperfections aside, returning a chastened NDP to office is actually the best choice we have. That seems unlikely, unless the polls are as wrong as they were in Alberta and B.C.

Under the circumstances, a Liberal government is unlikely to cheer anyone, including Liberal voters themselves. Nothing has been properly thought out, and unless McNeil backs off from some of his simplicities, Nova Scotia politics is heading back into the old stewpot from whence it came. But backing off -- or breaking promises -- in the face of the most cynical voters in the country (in my estimation) would hardly keep the peace.

I desperately hope I'm wrong about this, but after watching Nova Scotia politics for close to 45 years, some of the old queasy feeling is back.

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

Photo: Chris Campbell/flickr

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