One of the interesting early smoke signals from the new Liberal government is the one they aren’t sending — that the sky is falling. The Liberals did not, as the previous NDP government did, order up an immediate full-blown independent report on the state of the province’s finances, a report whose conclusions changed the course of the Dexter government’s first term and, arguably, put paid to its hopes of a second.
Could it be that those godless, investment-scaring tax-and-spend socialists managed to put the previous Tory government’s mismanaged fiscal house in order in their four years, allowing the Liberals to seamlessly begin governing as if the hobnailed boots of the apocalypse were not already upon our necks?
Or are we just waiting for the other, reality shoe to drop?
Time will tell.
Which is probably the safest thing to be said at this point about Stephen McNeil’s new brooms.
They are governing with a certain confidence-inducing confidence: fleshing out their promised public inquiry into the Nova Scotia Home for Coloured Children, making sure $60 million in federal social housing funds get spent wisely, launching a full-scale review of MLA compensation, pledging a happy-making winter holiday and telling other jurisdictions to keep their fracking waste to themselves, thank you very much.
At the same time, they have shown how easy it is to slide comfortably into governing’s perks. They swiftly shredded their opposition argument to remove political control from funding decisions at the government’s business slush fund. Not to worry, they say, they’ll be more transparent about it. That’s… comforting.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the government’s first order of business when the legislature opened last week was a bill aimed at “breaking” Nova Scotia Power’s monopoly on the electricity grid, allowing independent power generators to sell directly to customers.
Which sounds good and was the centerpiece of the Liberals’ energy-focused winning election platform. But it came with the implicit promise of lower power rates, which even the government now admits won’t happen as a result.
At best, the move will be a no-gain-no-loss symbolic gesture; at worst, removing big customers from the NSP grid will drive up costs for the rest of us.
Time will tell. For us. And for the eventual fate of Stephen McNeil's new government.
The question is why. Why — if you believe the polls — is Darrell Dexter’s NDP government heading for an ignominious defeat?
Nova Scotia’s first-ever NDP government was hardly a disaster. It succeeded a Tory government that had careened out of fiscal control, stumbled into one of the world’s worst economic meltdowns, got sideswiped by the collapse of the traditionally vital pulp and paper industry, and still managed to bring the books into balance by the end of its mandate.
Its accomplishments need to be understood in that context. None were major; not all were minor. Its innovative collaborative health care centres offer a model for efficient future rural health care delivery.
We won’t know for decades if some of its biggest-ticket and most controversial initiatives — the $260-million-forgivable-if-it-creates-4,000-jobs Irving loan to grease the $35 billion shipbuilding contract and the $1.52-billion Maritime Link hydroelectric project — were wise investments. But those deals at least showed a government thinking long term.
So why do Nova Scotians now seem so eager to kick them to history’s dustbin?
For starters, Nova Scotians had unrealistically high, often contradictory expectations for our first-ever NDP government. Many expectations — the NDP would govern differently — were self-created, the wounds that followed self-inflicted.
The government botched the MLA expenses scandal, which involved members of all parties and incidents before the NDP took office. But Darrell Dexter came across as prickly, defensive, hardly a practitioner of new politics. By the time the NDP brought in tighter, more transparent rules, they’d already squandered their hard-earned “we’ll govern differently” currency.
That may explain why critics inside and outside the party choose to focus more on what the government did they disagree with than what they would likely see as positive accomplishments. Business, for example, focuses on first-contract legislation they despise while ignoring cuts to corporate income taxes they champion. For many workers, it is the opposite. And, while environmentalists targeted the NDP’s record on the environment, they give the party little credit for its nation-leading efforts to protect the province’s wilderness areas.
In the end, this parsing of good and bad probably doesn’t matter. Political campaigns have a life of their own. The universe unfolds. We shall see what tomorrow — and the next days — bring.
I confess up front I didn’t watch last week’s CBC leaders’ debate. There was a book launch — mine — at the same time and, well, you have to have your priorities.
To make matters worse for a political columnist, I must also acknowledge I didn’t watch the full online, blow-by-blow, health-care-by-power-rates replay of the 90-minute show.
By the time I could have done so, I already knew from other unimpeachable sources — those who came late to my book launch so they could watch — there were no revelatory moments, no election game changers. There was no tub-thumping, finger-pointing Brian Mulroney declaring you-had-a-choice-sir to a deflating-before-our-eyes John Turner, no excruciating seven-and-a-half seconds of screaming silence from Nova Scotia’s soon-to-be-reduced-to-a-minority-and-then-blown-out-of-the-water Liberal premier Russell MacLellan.
Last week’s televised debate instead was — as pundits and my political junkie friends informed my perceptions of that which I didn’t see — simply “interesting.”
Liberal leader and premier-in-waiting Stephen McNeil did less well than expected, which was to be expected. Anointed front runners — much more than their mere mortal rivals — must do and say nothing that might surprise, so they say nothing of consequence. McNeil did.
NDP leader and premier presumed-to-be-on-his-farewell-tour Darrell Dexter did better than expected, which was also expected. With poll numbers seemingly stuck below the threshold where his party can win, Dexter had to up his game. Experienced, smart politician that he is, he did.
Conservative leader Jamie Baillie came the closest to a debate surprise, which also wasn’t much of surprise. The expectations for also-rans are low and Baillie, by all accounts, more than exceeded them.
Which brings us to the interesting question. What, if anything did the debate — and the one tonight, which I will watch — do to shift electoral sands.
Which brings us back to Baillie. If the pundits are right and Baillie’s stock has risen as a result of his debate performance, might some disaffected traditional rural Tory voters — who went NDP last election and are now leaning Liberal — reconsider. Given the closeness of so many contests, even a slight realignment in the vote splits could dramatically alter the constituency calculus. If that happens, well, anything could happen.
Take it from me. I wasn’t there.
If you'd like to actually see the debate for yourself, you can do so here.
Few will be surprised to know I’m a financial as well as philosophical supporter of the New Democratic Party. I’ve been making modest, tax-write-off-able, publicly recorded donations since the early 1980s when the provincial party had no MPs and a single MLA.
Giving then seemed more act of charity than political statement.
Times have changed. Federally, the NDP is now the official opposition. And, in Nova Scotia in 2009, the party of the never-wins won majority government.
I still give, though I don’t necessarily—or often—agree with actions of the government that carries my party label.
But I distinguish between a political party like the NDP, which has the luxury of a consistent, coherent philosophy, and a government like Darrell Dexter’s NDP, which has the messy job of making decisions in a province hobbled by decades of other-party-accumulated debt and a world buffeted by no-one’s-really-in-control-anymore freakynomics.
Most of the time, my convenient party-state fiction works.
But a recent post-Liberal annual meeting, political-is-personal fundraising email from party president David Wallbridge gave me pause.
Wallbridge’s email legitimately asked whether the Liberals are still spending 1970s-era, kickbacks-tainted funds to underwrite expenses like their own recent attack ads on the Dexter government.
Calling Liberal lack of transparency “disappointing [and] wrong,” Wallbridge segued: “I guess it’s not surprising.” Cue the ominous, Michael-Ignatieff music. “We don’t know a lot about Stephen McNeil.”
Huh? After a decade in the legislature, six as Liberal leader, four as leader of the opposition, what do we not know about MacNeil we didn’t know about Dexter when we made him premier.
“He hasn’t ever held any leadership or other such job in his life.”
Really? Politics don’t count in politics? Or is this a not-so-subtle swipe at McNeil’s intellectually unworthy pre-politics career as a small appliance repair shop owner.
“In fact,” Wallbridge goes on adding stupidity to innuendo, McNeil “had to hire a taxpayer-funded consultant to tell him how to run his political office.”
Uh… isn’t that what leaders should do when they need expertise? Didn’t Dexter hire consultants back in 2009 to tell him what to do about our economic situation?
“We have to fight back,” Wallbridge declared, “and we need your help.”
Press “Donate Now” button.
I’ll pass this time, thanks.
Forget this year’s faux feints and fevered fantasies. Two thousand and thirteen will be the year we get to pass electoral judgment on the government of Darrell Dexter.
Will we decide, on balance and measured against his less-than-stellar competition, that Dexter has earned a second majority term? Or will we, seeing more potential than performance in the past four years, rein him in, giving Dexter a second minority-government chance to make a better first impression? Or will we decide electing a first-ever NDP government was as historic a mistake as it was a milestone, and consign it to history’s dustbin?
Except for the most rabid of partisans—the my-party-right-or-wrong NDPers and their sky-is-falling-socialist-hordes counterparts—the choice will not be easy.
There are too many intriguing issues for one column but let’s start with economics.
The NDP inherited a fiscal mess mostly of its predecessor’s making, a global economic meltdown beyond its control and, worst, the ticking demographic time bomb of an aging, under-educated population.
None of those big-picture problems could have been overcome in a single electoral term by any party.
The NDP’s signature fiscal accomplishment—presuming they can pull it off—will be to have brought the province’s books back to balance in four years without completely devastating a precarious economy. No mean feat.
But the trick for the government now will be to convince its traditional base those against-the-grain sacrifices were necessary to allow for future social investment while reassuring those independents who voted for it in 2009 that that doesn’t mean a return to runaway spending.
The NDP’s broader economic development strategy has been the doomed-to-disappointment, tried-and-failed strategy Nova Scotia governments have touted since the days of Robert Stanfield: Dream big—and pray. Daewoo, IBM, Cooke Aquaculture, Irving Shipbuilding, the Lower Churchill… Throw the Hail-Stanfield pass...
The good news is the government has coupled those gambles with investments in training that—should they pay off—will keep more young people in the province. The bad news is that most of the bets will not pay off—and the government will have sacrificed other significant assets (gobs of public money, the environment) in the process.
No easy choices indeed. Let the campaigning begin. Happy New Year!
Copyright 2012 Stephen Kimber
How and why did avuncular, reasonable-man-trying-to-do-the-right-thing Opposition leader Darrell Dexter morph into prickly, why-should-I-answer-your-reasonable-question Premier Darrell Dexter?
Last week, as the House of Assembly wrapped up its fall sitting, Dexter announced—not in the legislature where you might have expected it, but in a puffed up State-of-the-Province speech to an audience of 400 Chamber-of-Commerce types—that his government had commissioned an independent study on the economics of importing electricity from the proposed Lower Churchill hydroelectric project in Labrador.
It turns out his government signed an untendered $85,000 contract with Power Advisory, a Massachusetts-based consultant, on Sept. 24, 2012. The company’s final report is expected within weeks.
What makes that announcement so intriguing, of course, is the premier had said nothing about the report before—despite ongoing opposition calls for exactly such a study and two emergency debates in the legislature.
The opposition, understandably, sniffed something nefarious. Dexter, suggested Tory leader Jamie Baillie, “has determined what he wants the outcome to be, and he wants to make sure that’s what it is before he releases the report.”
Dexter was airily dismissive. He hadn’t seen the report, he told reporters.
So why had he waited so long to mention it?
“I told you about it when it was appropriate to tell you,” he non answered.
No, but really? Why not announce it … any time before now?
“It’s not a riddle,” Dexter said. “I’m not trying to be anything but forthright,” he said, being everything but.
It’s hard to remember now but Dexter—before he discovered the perks of premier power—was once considered a straight-talking, sense-making pragmatist.
As his government gears up for re-election, its real problem is not what Dexter called our “fractured political landscape of successive governments going from majority to minority status and then being replaced,” or even—generally speaking—its policies. Its record, though far from inspiring, is defensible, especially in these straitened economic times. And some of its big picture, down-the-road plans—including the Lower Churchill and the shipbuilding contract—offer at least the prospect of a better tomorrow.
But until—and unless—Dexter rediscovers what brought him to power in the first place, his party’s own short-term political prospects seem unlikely to improve.
Copyright 2012 Stephen Kimber