This column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner on June 19, 2017.
So that didn’t take long.
It will be three weeks tomorrow since Nova Scotians voted in a provincial general election.
You may remember that election:
- the one in which Stephen McNeil’s Liberals came within a few hundred votes here or there of losing their majority status,
- the one in which more than six out of 10 voters chose not to vote for the Liberals,
- the one in which the Liberals lost close to 20 per cent of the legislative seats they’d held at dissolution, and dropped six per cent in the popular vote,
- the one in which barely 54 per cent of those eligible to cast a vote even bothered to, meaning the Liberals cobbled together their “majority” with the actual active support of just over 20 per cent of eligible Nova Scotian voters.
Yes, Virginia, that election, the same election that was so close on counting night that — four-and-a-half hours into tabulating the ballots — Stephen McNeil gave his conciliatory, isn’t democracy grand, let’s all work together, “Gary and Jamie” minority government semi-victory speech, only to discover that, by the time he’d finished delivering it, his party had nudged, barely, into majority government territory.
Yes, that election.
Well forget that election. There’s a new, alternate reality in town.
On Thursday, hundreds of Liberal party faithful gathered at Pier 21 for the official unveiling of Stephen McNeil’s new look, second-term cabinet, and to hear the premier’s happy-talk version of what Nova Scotians really meant when so many of us did not vote for him or his party last month.
Nova Scotians, he declared, “gave our government a strong mandate, the second majority in the 30 years.”
Well, yes, but…
And, of course, Nova Scotians, he said, were “loud and clear they appreciated our handling of making sure we live within our means.” Reading the electoral tea leaves with all the self-serving wisdom of a Donald Trump tweet, McNeil added: “I believe the election was a referendum on that.”
Elections are inevitably complicated, unsatisfactory, unclear, messy affairs in which it is virtually impossible to divine what voters actually intended to pronounce on any single, specific issue, simply because there are so many different issues that animate so many different voters in so many different, sometimes contradictory ways.
The Liberals themselves muddied that meaning swamp in the lead-up to their vote-woo. After four years of insisting the provincial cupboard was not just bare but lacking even in basic shelving, the Liberals suddenly discovered $1.08 billion under the floorboards to spend on “innovative new programs that support families, seniors and communities” and, of course, to cut taxes.
So… did we vote for the Austerity Liberals? Or the Prosperity Liberals?
The Liberals who eviscerated the province’s successful film tax credit? Or the Liberals who propped up the failed Yarmouth ferry? The Liberals who’d previously promised a family doctor for every Nova Scotian? Or the Liberals who shrugged and said, who me?
And what Liberals will we actually end up with now that all is counted and done.
That is the question.
Unlike the premier, many of McNeil’s cabinet appointees seemed chastened by what they’d heard on voter’s doorsteps during the campaign, and certainly appeared more conciliatory than their pre-election predecessors.
New Government House Leader Geoff MacLellan, for example, allowed that he is “open for discussion and understanding” with the opposition after four years of a battering-ram approach to managing the legislature’s business. “We all have a job and I completely respect what opposition does,” he told reporters.
His boss, however, made it clear that if what the opposition “does” isn’t what the premier wants, he’ll do whatever it takes to make them toe his line.
Newly minted minister in charge of the newly minted ministry of labour relations — public sector division — Mark Furey told reporters he’s eager to start contract discussions with public sector unions this week.
But it’s hard to be hopeful those discussions will lead anywhere when his boss insists the election was a referendum on his own hardline approach. And that he won.
The election is over. The old/new/old narrative has begun.