Random thoughts on the Cape Breton North results

With the coal mining neighborhoods of Sydney Mines, Florence, Bras d’Or, and Alder Point, and the unionized workforce at Marine Atlantic in North Sydney, Cape Breton North ought to be fertile ground for the NDP. Instead, except for a single election in 1978, it has brought the party nothing but heartache.

In a 2001 by-election, it put an early end to Helen MacDonald’s term as leader, passing her up in favor of Cecil Clarke, who insisted the riding needed a member on the Hamm government’s side. In the 2009 NDP, it stopped 165 votes short of joining the massive NDP tide. Last week, it handed the NDP government a humbling defeat, knocking more than 1,000 votes off the party’s general election tally (or roughly 800 after adjusting for reduced turnout).

Some random thoughts on the implications for all three parties:

  • The NDP retain their grip on Metro, but the they appear to have frittered away the gains they made elsewhere. Some of this is because they have taken necessary but unpopular steps, like grabbing the HST points abandoned by the feds, and insisting school boards start cutting their garments to fit their cloth. They may have been right to abandon subsidies to the Yarmouth Ferry, but they have been deaf to the hardship this imposed on the region. They were certainly right to abandon the foolhardy pledge to keep emergency rooms open, but having campaigned prominently on that cynical promise in the general election, how did they expect places like Cape Breton North to react where its ER is continually closed? By moving a planned jail from Springhill, where they have no member, to Pictou County, where they have three, the NDP have put that riding out of reach for a decade or more. Doing the right thing is hard. It requires persuasive leadership of a kind the cautious Dexter HQ has so far failed to exhibit.
  • Everyone has been waiting to see whether Stephen McNeil or Jamie Baillie would emerge as the main challenger in the next election. The CB North results give Baillie a major boost toward premier-in-waiting status. Disclosure: I’ve known Jamie for years, both professionally and as a friend. I like him, and think he’d make a good premier, but his position on education cuts is irresponsible. It’s all very well to embrace education as a motherhood issue, but  he knows as well as Graham Steele that continual budget increases in the face of plummeting enrolments are unsustainable. Instead of offering innovative solutions to that intractable problem, Baillie and his candidate pandered to the entrenched we-can-have-everything-and-not-worry-about-paying-for-it mentality, and the reprehensible tactics of the school boards and their fellow travellers in the unions. (See: Two ways NS could have better schools for less money.) Bill Black must be rolling his eyes.
  • What was Stephen McNeil thinking? He had three party members eager to contest the nomination in a riding where the Liberals had been also-rans for the last several elections. What an opportunity to drum up interest and enthusiasm! So what did McNeil do? He accepted a longtime ward-heeler’s advice to cancel the nominations meeting and choose an establishment insider. For two years I’ve been struck by the contrast between McNeil positive public image, and the distain with which so many part members view him. I’m starting to understand.

One more word about the Dexter Government. In discussions over the last few months with friends inside and outside the Dexter inner circle, the insiders have insisted the government has no problems in the rural mainland or Cape Breton. The outsiders are increasingly worried, in some cases dismayed. The fact the government—any government—has problems two years into its mandate is no cause for alarm. They fact the government doesn’t think it has a problem is ample cause.