Parallels abound between Nova Scotia election and ongoing federal election

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Former Nova Scotia premier Iain Rankin next to Justin Trudeau. Images: Iain Rankin/Justin Trudeau/Twitter

"Vote early, vote often!" used to be the cheerful mantra of campaign workers and other partisan enthusiasts as voters were shepherded to the polls.

The rallying cry was never intended to be taken literally -- especially the second half -- but the first half is now seen to be mandatory.

The Nova Scotia election on August 17 resulted in a Progressive Conservative majority government -- 31 seats. The Liberals -- the outgoing government -- got 17 seats. The NDP, the only progressive party of the three, was held to six seats. There's one Independent; a former PC MLA.

For several hours on election night, the NDP led in up to 11 seats. For the second election in a row, the NDP lost those close races when the last poll -- the advance vote -- was counted.

It was a lesson learned: yes, campaigns matter but not as much as they used to. It's a lesson apparently learned already by federal parties. We're midway through the federal campaign, with the election scheduled for September 20, but voters are already being urged to the polls. In a recent NDP fundraising letter, the ask was for a donation but just as important was the message to get out and vote early.

The message said:

Last election, there were around 50,000 mail in ballots cast. This time, election officials say they're expecting millions.

That's why it is especially crucial we turn out voters from day one, not just day 36.

Turning out the vote -- especially the early vote -- is how we win, and we need to do that work earlier than ever.

It's necessarily changed the way parties prepare for an election. Parties now realize that by the time the election is called, they have to consider themselves well into the campaign.

The new Nova Scotia Premier is Tim Houston. He's an accountant. In an earlier life, he lived in Bermuda. He's mentioned in the Paradise Papers although he downplays any connection with perhaps helping evil corporations shelter offshore to avoid paying any taxes.

He calls himself a "solutionist." During the campaign, some his candidates began to call themselves solutionists also. It sounded like a cult but it seems to have -- sadly -- petered out.

More than once during the campaign, Houston distanced himself from the federal Conservative party. He referred to himself always as Progressive Conservative and made sure people grasped his distinction.

There seems to be a consensus that Houston won the election because of his plan to fix health care. The price he put on his fix is $400 million, which, on a health care budget that exceeds $2 billion, seems negligible. No leader ever says, "We're going to privatize services," but, if he does -- and I predict he will -- it will be stealthy and secretive.

But who knows? He also promised a dog tax credit (yes, a $500 tax credit if you adopt a dog); a "better pay cheque guarantee" (this is a program where businesses don't have to pay their taxes as long as they say they'll share that savings with their employees -- one veteran journalist referred to this scheme as "hare-brained"); and a new tax for people who own property here but don't pay income tax in Nova Scotia -- $2 for every $100 in assessment value.
Affordable housing and rent control were major issues during the campaign. Homelessness is a serious problem and it seems likely that it will get worse. The day after the election, the Halifax police began moving tents and temporary shelters from various sites around town. They pepper sprayed and arrested protesters who had showed up to support those who were living in the temporary shelters.

The outgoing Liberal government had placed a cap on raising rents which is due to expire when the state of emergency ends. Houston has flatly refused to consider extending the rent control.

At his first news conference post-election -- seated next to the esteemed Dr. Robert Strang, chief medical officer, during a COVID briefing -- he said, again and again, "rent control is not a solution!"

Again and again, he said that more housing stock is the solution. He said he's talked to a lot of people for whom rent control is the problem, not the solution. (It's never clear whether those people for whom rent control is the problem are renters.) He talks about "fixing health care" but he dismisses one of the major social determinants to good health -- secure and affordable housing.

No one asked him if he's already started building the new housing stock, but the head of his transition team is one of Halifax's biggest developers, Scott McCrea -- also, one of the PC's biggest donors -- so many people feel it's clear whose side Tim Houston is on -- and that the housing crisis will only get worse.

Iain Rankin became Liberal leader -- and Premier -- last February. He had served in the Liberal government over the past eight years but he was not well-known. He became known to Nova Scotians mostly during his weekly COVID briefings -- also in the comforting presence of Dr. Strang. Because the handling of COVID was seen to be successful, calling an election probably made sense at the time. Justin Trudeau, federal Liberal leader, seems to have felt the same way.

Just days before the election call, Rankin said he wanted to make an announcement before the COVID briefing started. He said back in 2003, when he was 20 years old, he'd been arrested for drinking and driving. He paid his fine and he regretted the action.

It happened again in 2005 but he was found "innocent" and that case was thrown out.

He said that the party membership who voted for his leadership knew about it as did his former boss, Stephen McNeil. He thought now was a good time to share it with Nova Scotians.

He deflected all questions after that but it turned out that the reason he decided it was time to share this news was because a reporter had phoned him earlier that day and questioned him on the subject. It was obviously coming out.

His use of the word "innocent" -- a concept that doesn't exist in Canadian law -- increased the public interest in the 2005 case and indeed, there was a lot more to the story.

It was not a good way to begin a campaign -- he appeared evasive and the very opposite of transparent -- and early in the campaign, he stumbled badly in the handling of Robyn Ingraham, a candidate who was asked to withdraw from the campaign after revealing photos of her surfaced online. She said the Liberal Party asked her to blame her withdrawal on mental health issues.

In both the DUI and the Ingraham cases, Rankin looked unsure of himself and appeared to lack basic leadership skills.

Altogether, things just didn't come together for him.

Gary Burrill, leader of the NDP and in his second campaign the most experienced of the leaders, concentrated on rent control and affordable housing which became a focal point of the whole campaign. He forced the other leaders more than once into claiming that they did not support rent control and it would not be part of their plan if they formed the government.

Burrill pushed many other NDP planks but it was the housing crisis that became identified with his campaign. When the Halifax police forced people from the temporary shelters the day after the election it was Gary Burrill who showed up in support of the homeless population.

Because the housing crisis is now nation-wide, the federal parties have also begun to see homelessness, escalating rents and affordable housing as emerging issues.

On election night, both Rankin and Burrill announced their intention of staying in place but there's much speculation that neither will be party leaders by the time the next election rolls around.

Rankin has lost the confidence of many in his party and will face a leadership review within months. It's assumed he'll be out.

And although Burrill is admired and respected, it's been noted that in two elections, he hasn't increased support for the NDP. He increased his caucus by one seat and came close in several key seats around the province but that's probably not enough to save his leadership.

The world of politics is brutal. One of the valuable lessons that people learn in politics is knowing when to go -- and on whose terms. It's never easy.

Sharon Fraser is a former editor of rabble.ca.

Image: Iain Rankin/Justin Trudeau/Twitter

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