This week’s byelection results are another signal of how deeply things have changed in Nova Scotia. Not only is the NDP still gaining, but this run — totally opposite to our political customs — would have been nearly unthinkable a short while ago. Let’s repeat the election night question: What’s going on?
The NDP wins yet another victory in virgin territory, Antigonish, and ends up competitive even in the former Tory premier’s riding of Inverness. Reasons evoked include the notion that many voters simply wanted to get on the government bandwagon, and that the relentless work of motivated New Democrats, like Antigonish’s third-time candidate Maurice Smith, finally bore fruit.
But here’s the deeper reason. Simply, that very rare commodity in these parts — public confidence in government — has gone up. Higher, I’d guess, than at any time in the last 40 years. And this, remarkably, even as the government settles in during troubled economic times and passes a budget with a huge deficit — the very thing that has been political poison for 20 years.
It’s early, of course. In my long experience, it takes a year and a half to two years to make any firm judgments about how a new government is doing, and there are plenty of obstacles ahead that could unhorse this one. But the twist here is that this is not just a new government, but a presumed complete overhaul of political tradition. The political cobwebs have been cleaned out, the place has a new paint job and the public, by all appearances, likes it.
The first benefit of the new order is that every cabinet minister is ostensibly capable and competent. This was never the case as far back as I can remember, and probably never. In previous Tory and Liberal governments, there always were a few in cabinet whose only relevant skills were local political manipulation, and another few who were competent but who operated on the ethical margins. The respectable half of the cabinet dragged this troublesome underbelly, which represented the political culture of influence and favouritism.
But the real clue to the new order is in the fluster of the opposition parties. They tried the old yell-and-scream routine at the opening of the legislature, but nobody was listening. Opposition Leader Stephen McNeil has been on high rev, attacking every move by the NDP as “old politics,” a “charade,” “hypocrisy” and so on. All he does with this is evoke his own party’s past. He reminds me of a ghost rattling around in the attic of an abandoned house, repeating the mantra that dragged him down while in this world. The Tories, I think, are doing better with their quiet lady, interim leader Karen Casey.
Even the tone of politics has changed, and McNeil is several annoying octaves too high. The Dexter government speaks softly, sounding confidently in charge and above the fray, and with information at hand. With a considerable level of trust in Darrell Dexter and his party, the public assumption seems to be that if something is happening, there’s a reason for it that will be adequately explained.
Even the media, which became institutionally hostile towards government when the Buchanan administration was melting down and taking the province’s finances down with it around 1990, are suddenly giving the benefit of the doubt. For example, a story on page A11 of this newspaper on Thursday — “N.S. not giving to Sally Ann heating fund” — would, I suspect, have been more prominent in Rodney MacDonald’s day under suspicion that it was another bungle, even if he gave the same adequate explanation that Premier Dexter did.
This might sound like a maddening double standard to the opposition, but the NDP actually gets the benefit for having no history. The previous Tory government was being judged not just for what it was doing, but what it had been doing for 25 years. That’s the meaning of a refreshing new start.
Consider the one “scandal” the opposition is trying to pin on the NDP — the loan accorded a fisherman by the Fisheries Loan Board, which is under the jurisdiction of Fisheries Minister Sterling Belliveau, to buy a lobster boat and licence from the same Sterling Belliveau. A loan from the loan board is not a favour, and there’s a little perception problem there but not much more.
The NDP, of course, would have howled if the Tories or Liberals had done it, and with good reason because it would have fit into an old pattern. The NDP would be vulnerable if eventually there was a chain of these and an emerging pattern. For now, however, we have a mind-boggling phenomenon at hand: a Nova Scotia government that can do no wrong.
Ralph Surette is a veteran freelance journalist living in Yarmouth County. This article was reprinted with permission from The Chronicle Herald.