Therapy for a psychotic electorate

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Nova Scotia's NDP has finally arrived. For the first time, the media have treated it and its policies as fully equal to the others, without the old double standard in which the NDP has to account for the sins of its brethren elsewhere but the Tories and

A reporter from Moncton, fresh from the open and straightforward politics of New Brunswick, called me a couple of weeks ago completely baffled. He had gone over the border to Cumberland and Colchester Counties to cover the Nova Scotia election and felt as though he had wandered onto a strange planet.

Mention the election, he said, and people became snarly and uncommunicative, but couldn't or wouldn't explain why. Could I explain this?

Well, there's the lingering bad odour in which we hold politicians generally, the fact that Nova Scotia politics is a long-term psychodrama in which we resemble a patient recovering from trauma (debt, patronage, corruption, the Westray mine disaster, the Marshall inquiry, and frig-ups by the dozens over the last two decades), and other kinks that keep us mumbling and seething at the same time.

Such is my usual explanation. But what does it all mean? Well, it means that the issues tend to be muffled, that we swallow our anger then let it out in unpredictable ways — and that the real action is deeper and less visible than the immediate issues that go round and round.

Consider the iconic event of this campaign — the $155.00 tax rebate, and the Tory splurge of spending promises which came in the month before the election was called. Given the grumbling about this, as measured by the polls, Tory leader John Hamm may well have lost his majority because of it.

Although not generally noted as such, the net effect is that another mighty blow — a fatal one, we hope — has been delivered against the notion of “buying votes.” And so this injunction can be graven at last across the forehead of the Nova Scotian political consciousness: “DON'T BUY VOTES; DON'T GIVE THE APPEARANCE OF BUYING VOTES; DON'T EVEN JOKE ABOUT BUYING VOTES.”

Or consider the rise of the NDP, which is the instrument of our protest against dysfunctional traditional politics. The NDP has finally arrived beyond all doubt, and set root. For the first time, the media have treated it and its policies as fully equal to the others, without the old double standard in which the NDP has to account for the sins of its brethren elsewhere but the Tories and Liberals don't. The NDP is also the urban party and metropolitan trends in our society are eventually the dominant ones.

This is a profound change, and I'm frankly amazed that it has happened this quickly. I expected maybe next election. In fact, last April, I wrote a column headlined, “Public auto insurance: Why can't we even talk about it?” Since then, this NDP policy centerpiece has gone from a taboo subject to one of the key issues in the campaign.

As to how our kinks will translate into votes, nobody can do anything except make wild guesses as to numbers. However, if there's any last-minute movement that will make a difference, I'd say it would be one of the following:

1. John Hamm's plaintive appeal for a majority government will have enough bite to boost him up, as at least some people back off from the thought of minority government.

2. The tense but muted anger encountered everywhere is deeper than we realize and will translate into a last-minute impetus for the NDP (which, lest we forget, came out second in some 16 non-metro ridings in 1999). The return of auto-insurance as a troublesome issue in New Brunswick after it sank Bernard Lord's majority, and Hamm's last-minute backtracking on the matter of forcing insurance companies to drop their premiums, is interesting in that regard.

3. The Liberals are given the advantage by a last-minute collapse of the Tory vote, in which they replace the PCs as the traditional party, or by some sudden atavistic fear of the “unproven” NDP with people choosing the Liberals as a limp form of protest against the Tories. This seems the least likely, but I wouldn't rule anything out.

Of course, all the above scenarios could come true to some degree in these last hours of the campaign, cancelling each other out. And thus we wait with bated breath to see what that recuperating — we hope — psychotic, the Nova Scotia electorate will do on election night. Good luck to all of us.

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