What does Nova Scotia mean for the NDP?

Staring once more into the NDP’s soul
Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter addresses a news conference in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Newfoundland and Labrador on Friday, Nov. 30, 2012. Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that the Canadian government, and the governments of Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia have agreed on terms for a federal loan guarantee for the Lower Churchill River energy projects. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

Thomas Mulcair grants that there are lessons in the defeat of an NDP government in Nova Scotia. So what might those lessons be?

Greg Fingas suggests the result is a reminder to be bold.

The working assumption for both the federal party and most of the provincial parties close to forming government has been that the only way to win over voters is to appear steady, staid and safe rather than pushing strongly for many policy priorities. And that theory seemed especially likely to work for Darrell Dexter given Nova Scotia’s precedent of offering every previous government at least a second term. But now that Dexter alone has been toppled – in contrast to far more controversial provincial counterparts elsewhere over the past couple of years – it’s worth asking whether more activist government might prove valuable on two fronts.

First, for electoral purposes there has to be some value to keeping a party base engaged and a set of values in the public eye. And while “base vs swing” is one of the perpetual debates for political strategists of all stripes, it’s hard to see the Nova Scotia experience as evidence that balancing budgets immediately and promising social progress later is a winning combination. And second, there’s the question of what a government will leave behind after its stay in office is done.

Ralph Surrette says the NS NDP lost touch with its supporters.

Dexter’s stand, inspired by NDP icon Tommy Douglas in Saskatchewan, was that the budget had to be balanced before investments in social programs can be sustainable in the long run.

The first Western NDP premiers also had to face conflict with their left wings who wanted to invest in social programs faster. From that example, he expected his own progressives to push too hard, too fast. His first bad move was to cut them off hard.

Gerald Caplan says it’s a bit of a conundrum. And possibly Bob Rae’s fault.

All Darrell Dexter needed to do was to discover the Manitoba/ Saskatchewan secret and B.C. and Ontario’s Achilles heel. But here’s the rub. No one knows what works and what doesn’t. Each leader (even Bob Rae, back then) was fully committed to the party’s ideals of social justice and equality, although implementation depended on circumstances. Saskatchewan’s political culture has as many differences from Manitoba as it has commonalities. Nova Scotia, like every province, has its own distinct political traditions. And it’s not clear that the Saskatchewan NDP’s secret even works for Saskatchewan any more…

Commenting during the campaign, Cape Breton University political science professor David Johnson judged that “Dexter has done as well as anyone could possibly do, given the situation he had to deal with.” That’s pretty high praise. But somehow it wasn’t good enough for most Nova Scotians. There, like most everywhere else, the NDP seems unable to escape its reputation for being dicey economic managers, and even terrible recessions are no excuse. Time and again, Bob Rae’s wildly-exaggerated record of economic incompetence in Ontario trumps the party’s solid record in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Thomas Mulcair has his work cut out for him.

Like the Conservative party, the NDP is blessed of a certain ideological debate about its reason for being. But unlike the Conservative party—perhaps especially after seven years of the Harper government—the idea of an NDP government can still seem sort of unusual. The party has only technically existed since 1961 and, outside of Saskatchewan and Manitoba, it has only ever won three elections in British Columbia, one in Ontario, one in Nova Scotia and three in the Yukon. (Total number of provincial seats won by the NDP in the history of New Brunswick: Five.) Federally, this is, of course, the first time the NDP has been the official opposition. Previous to 2011, the NDP’s high-point was 1988, when it won 43 seats with 20.4% of the popular vote. Between 1993 and 2008, it held fewer seats than the Bloc Quebecois.

And yet, it is also true that the NDP has never been closer to putting one of its own in the Prime Minister’s Office.