Progressives look east with envy as Nova Scotia goes NDP

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There used to be a T-shirt that said, "I think, therefore I am ... NDP."  It's that "thinking" that long-time supporters of the NDP believe distinguishes them from members of the other political parties.

They tell the story -- perhaps apocryphal -- about a member of the Liberal party who went as an observer to an NDP convention.  When he saw all the delegates seated around tables that were covered with papers, pencils, pamphlets, he asked, wryly, "What are they doing?  Playing bingo?"  NDP members love that. They know that lowly Liberal delegates don't work at their convention.  They know they're there just to approve policy that's set by the bigwigs in the backrooms, behind closed doors.

That’s not the NDP way, as its members are happy to attest.  NDP policy is hashed out, with much discussion, argument and yes, bitterness and acrimony, by NDP members on the convention floor. That’s why its members have a sense of ownership of their Party; that’s why the NDP victory in Nova Scotia -- a majority win with 31 of 52 seats -- is so much more significant than when Liberals or Conservatives win yet another election.  And that’s why -- for those Nova Scotia NDPers who are now the public face of the Party -- there will be the added challenge that the other parties don’t have to face: making sure their own members accept the difference between being a movement for change and being a government.

The NDP is made up of workers, in the broadest sense.  Its members are the people, many of them energetic activists, all over the province who work every day on women’s issues, on environmental issues, on issues around poverty, peace, race relations, housing, immigration, labour, disability and more.  They are the people who are going to be looking expectantly at the new government and expecting positive change.  They’re also the people who, without question, will not always approve of the direction the new government takes.

All the same, the fretting and grousing that usually arise at NDP gatherings was muted on election night as people who had been working toward this end for so many years were still trying to comprehend this almost-miraculous turn of events.

There was still the occasional pocket of suspicion with the usual suspects grumbling about Darrell Dexter’s election promise to balance the budget -- and they smile with tight lips when reminded that Tommy Douglas balanced 14 consecutive budgets -- and his ready acceptance of the importance of small business to Nova Scotia and no plans to raise taxes. There were those who recalled with quiet nostalgia the days when there were only three NDP MLAs and Alexa was known as the conscience of Nova Scotia.

But on this night, there was no talk of a “moral victory.” (“Will this be called an ‘immoral victory?’” wondered one elated NDP worker.) There was no blaming the media although one person, invoking a much-expressed media stereotype, looked around and said, “I suppose tomorrow, we’ll be reading about the Birkenstock-wearing, granola-eating tree-huggers -- not that I see any.”  (Parker Donham, a well-known freelance journalist, did, however, post on his blog, a photo taken at midnight showing a deserted hotel ball-room where the post-election festivities had taken place.  His headline read, “NDP Party party? Not so much much.”)

The campaign was rife with stereotypes though. The Tories ran ads that suggested an NDP hidden agenda, the Liberals referred to the Party of tax-and-spend. There were regular letters to the editor from people claiming to be from Ontario or B.C., wallowing in those provinces’ misery because they had elected NDP governments headed by Bob Rae (20 years ago) and Glen Clark (10 years ago).  (No, there was no one claiming to be from Manitoba or Saskatchewan writing about several generations of NDP governments there which have mostly provided good and stable government.)

The turnout for this election was low -- a surprise, as it seemed clear that the electorate was anxious to vote in a new government. The media write and broadcast stories lamenting the turnout and don’t seem to identify the reasons. Do they ask themselves if they’re part of the problem? They go out of their way to find people -- they do random interviews on the street -- to pronounce the campaign “dull.”  They ask leading questions, such as, “Do you find this campaign dull?” or, “Are you yawning yet?” and then act wearily disturbed at the death of democracy.
They particularly like to find those people who will say, “I don't know what the issues are.”  But shouldn’t the media discuss and explore and investigate issues and make it easier for the voters to know what the issues are? Maybe it’s time to paraphrase an old adage and suggest that there are no dull election campaigns, only dull reporters.

There is still an element of denial in mainstream media-land.  Some columnists and pundits are tripping over themselves to splutter that this is not really an NDP government, that Darrell Dexter has moved his Party to the centre and that he once described his values -- and the values of most Nova Scotians -- as “conservative progressive.”

Well, guess what? The NDP is a left-wing party and Nova Scotia has just elected an NDP government.  No doubt there are many Canadians right across the country who are looking east with envy.  (Except for Newfoundland of course, where they’re looking southwest.)

Sharon Fraser, former editor of, is a writer and editor living in Halifax. Her partner, Dan O'Connor, is Chief of Staff to premier-designate Darrell Dexter.

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