The Sackville-Cobequid byelection: seeking meaning in the meaningless

It is way too early to read anything of significance from a single constituency byelection in the muddling middle of any government’s mandate. But let’s give it a shot…

“Steve Craig won the byelection for MLA in Sackville-Cobequid…
The district has long been solidly NDP, so a PC victory is notable,
but I wouldn’t read too much into it.”

Tim Bousquet
June 19, 2019

Tim is right, of course. It is way too early to read anything of significance from the political leavings in the bottom of one electoral liquor class. The sample size — a single constituency byelection in the muddling middle of any government’s mandate — is much too small to be statistically, let alone politically relevant.

And yet… And yet those of us in the political chattering classes inevitably find the opportunity to discern meaning from the meaningless impossible to resist.

So let us begin.

Steve Craig

Last Tuesday, now-former municipal councillor Steve Craig — whom Tim described in his  Morning File post as the “most intelligent and savvy” of the Sackville district city council candidates he interviewed way back in 2016, not to mention on the progressive side of the Progressive Conservative continuum, not to forget a “good governance” councillor who “did at least talk about asserting commission power over the police force” — won the byelection in Sackville-Cobequid.

It was not an easy or resounding victory and wasn’t ultimately decided until the final polls reported just before 10:30 pm. When the counting had all been re-counted, Craig won 42 per cent of the vote compared to 39 per cent (2,655 – 2,472 = 183 votes in the difference) for Lara Fawthrop, the NDP candidate, a veteran teacher who had spent more than a decade teaching music and English at Sackville High.

What made the result interesting — and perhaps significant — is that Sackville has been NDP orange since 1984 when another NDP educator, John Holm, first won the seat for the party. That victory was sweetly significant; it was the NDP’s first suburban Halifax beachhead in what had been a determinedly two-party state of Nova Scotia. Sackville became the pointy end of the NDP’s metro electoral assault during the 1990s, the one which eventually led the party to government in 2009.

For 35 years and 10 elections, through Conservative, Liberal and NDP majority and minority governments, not to forget the silk-smooth transition from NDP MLA John Holm to NDP MLA and cabinet minister Dave Wilson in 2003, Sackville-Cobequid has remained steadfast in its support for the party. In 2006, Wilson even defeated one-and-the-same Steve Craig, capturing more than 54 per cent of the vote to Craig’s 30 per cent. In 2017, despite Stephen McNeil winning a second consecutive majority government, Wilson again held Sackville with just over 44 per cent of the popular vote.

And Sackville wasn’t just hands-off NDP provincial turf either. Federally, popular Peter Stoffer owned the riding for 18 years, all the way from Alexa McDonough’s 1997 Nova Scotia breakthrough to Justin Trudeau’s 2015 Liberal sweep.

So, for the NDP, this particular byelection defeat stings badly.

NDP leader Gary Burrill (Jennifer Henderson)

And it inevitably raised enough uncomfortable questions about current NDP leader Gary Burrill’s leadership that he was forced to email party members with a day-after acknowledgement that what had happened was not “an easy pill for us to swallow,” coupled with his own sky-is-not-falling determination to be “clear about a number of things that are not changed one iota by this result.” Including the reality he planned to stick around as leader. “That question is not on our screen,” Burrill insisted to reporters. “We’ve had a disappointment and we’re registering that today, but the sky has not fallen on us.”

Not yet.

There is an irony in all of this, of course. Fawthrop’s 39 per cent of the vote last week would have been enough (barely) to win the riding in 2013 when Wilson himself held on against the Liberal tide with just 38.45 per cent of votes cast.

In politics, less than a percentage point can be the difference between forward-momentum headlines and calls for a leader’s head.

The other significant — and related — talking point out of last week’s byelection, of course, was the collapse of the Liberal vote. Michel Hindlet was the party’s standard bearer in both last week’s byelection and also in 2017. In 2017, he took 25.9 per cent of the vote, enough for a (distant) second place. Last week, he laid claim to barely 10 per cent of the total number of ballots cast.

“It’s for that reason that the PCs were able to win in this close contest with the NDP,” Cape Breton University political science professor Tom Urbaniak told News 95.7’s Rick Howe. “So there is clearly a message for change here.”

While voters often use byelections to register their displeasure with the policies of whatever government is in power — without having to toss the bastards out in the process — there are indications the pricked balloon of Liberal support in Sackville last week may be a harbinger of worse to come for the governing party.

According to the latest public opinion poll for Narrative Quarterly Research, voter satisfaction with Stephen McNeil’s Liberals is falling — and fast. In just the past three months, those who tell the pollsters they’re happy with McNeil’s performance plummeted by six percentage points (based on a telephone survey of 800 Nova Scotians, considered accurate to within 3.5 percentage points 95 times out of a hundred and blah blah blah).

McNeil’s satisfaction rating now stands at 35 per cent. That’s two per cent less than the worst rating for Darrell Dexter’s NDP government in the year before its 2013 defeat.


“We’ve never seen a government re-elected in this region if their satisfaction level is below 50 per cent,” explains Narrative’s COO Margaret Chapman, “so when he’s at 35 per cent here, there’s certainly a lot to turn around before the election comes.”

There are caveats, of course. The poll shows Liberals and Tories (Tim Houston, new proprietor) are now in a statistical tie for voter support. And McNeil is still — barely — the choice of those polled to lead the province. (Go figure.) But 31 per cent of those polled told the poll taker they were currently undecided, six per cent declared they didn’t intend to vote ( a rightful pox on them all) and four per cent didn’t want to be disturbed during dinner.

Which means?

To paraphrase the late John Diefenbaker, polls— especially those taken between elections — are… well, “I’ve always been fond of dogs,” the former Tory prime minister once said, “and they are the one animal that knows the proper treatment to give to poles.”

The same — and worse — can be said of trying to see the future in last week’s one-off byelection results.

But we are about halfway through this government’s mandate. There are already so many political-junkie questions. Will Stephen McNeil stick around to defend his crown one more time? Will Gary Burrill survive his own party’s jittery naysayers to fight another day? Will Tim Houston’s Tories manage to maintain their fast forward electoral momentum without ever being forced to say what they’re for instead of just what they’re against? Will the NDP become roadkill once again as voters gang up to get rid of these bastards only to end up electing those bastards? Will any of this ever lead us to a saner electoral system than first past the post?

Read too much into it? Me? Never.

This column first appeared in the Halifax Examiner June 24, 2019.

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