Further evidence, if more were needed, that God is a New Democrat: No sooner did I put up the first part of my Things the NDP Did Wrong post than I was laid low by a chest cold that obliterated deep thought.* Here, finally, is Part Two of What the Dippers Did Wrong, to be followed, more swiftly I hope, by a two-part Things They Did Right.
4. Tone deaf to rural NS
Four years ago, Nova Scotia’s New Democratic Party formed its first ever provincial government by adding an historic sweep of the rural mainland to its traditional Metro stranglehold. From the Canso Causeway to Lower East Pubnico, Dexter’s troops painted the entire Atlantic coastline orange.
Were it not for Tory Angus Tando MacIsaac hanging onto Antigonish, and the thin strip of coastline that belongs to Colchester North, the party would have registered another clean sweep along the Northumberland coast, from the Causeway to the Tantramar Marsh. Antigonish joined the orange tide a year later in a byelection.
Credit for engineering this triumph goes to the party’s cucumber-cool leader, whose stolid personality calmed fears of barbarians at the gate, and the small group of smart political operatives who surrounded him. Like the leader, and all but a handful of the party’s longstanding MLAs, the apparatchiks were firmly rooted in Halifax. None had neighbours who made their living with Stihl 041s, Ford 2Ns, or Ace Pot-Pullers. None lived 25 km from the nearest post office or NSLC outlet. None commuted to and from work over kilometres of unpaved road. None lived on their grandfather’s farm. None had used dialup in more than a decade.**
They were, however, thoroughly familiar with fashionable economic theories about the the inexorable urbanization of Canada, and the foolhardiness of propping up dying regions and economies. They knew governments are supposed to get unpleasant tasks—breaking promises, raising taxes, and killing popular programs—out of the way early in the mandate.
So when Bay Ferries Ltd. asked for another in a long and growing string of annual subsidies to keep the Yarmouth Ferry running, Dexter’s boys abruptly shut off the tap. For the first time in decades, there would be no ferry connection between Yarmouth and Maine. The announcement came a week before Christmas.
There was no consultation—not with the town, the county, or the surrounding municipalities; not with the 120 ferry workers who would lose their jobs; not with the hoteliers who feared the ferry shutdown would render their businesses unviable. Dexter and Fisheries Minister Sterling Belliveau, the political minister for Southwest Nova, were both out of the country. It may just have been, as Dexter said in a television appearance last week, the biggest mistake of his first term.
It wasn’t simply a failure to calculate the massive collateral damage removal of the ferry would cause, it was a general cluelessness about the nuts and bolts of rural life. The NS NDP brain trust doesn’t get rural Nova Scotia, and rural Nova Scotia knows it.
5. Maladroit on big negotiations
Whether chastened by the Yarmouth fiasco or hip to the hundreds of union jobs at stake, Dexter’s boys moved aggressively to shore up two venerable industrial behemoths—the paper mills at Brooklyn and Point Tupper—and to invest in two potential industrial employers—Daewoo’s wind turbine fabrication plant at the old Trenton Rail Yard, and Irving’s bid for a massive federal shipbuilding contract.
- In December 2011, the province gave Bowater Mersey a $50 million rescue package aimed at saving 320 jobs, only to see the plant shut down permanently six months later. About half the money went to purchase woodlands owned by the newsprint company; the other half took the form of grants that were mostly unspent when the owners pulled the plug. In December 2012, the province took over most of the company’s assets and liabilities, including a $20 million debt to one of the two owners, $120 million in pension liabilities, and environmental liabilities of unknown dimensions.
- In September, 2012, the province paid the venture capital firm Stern Partners $124.5 million to take over the idle Pt. Tupper super-calendar paper mill. It had already spent $36.8 million keeping the mill in restartable condition. As the deal-making dragged on, Stern continually upped its demands, and the province repeatedly met them. Only after tiny Richmond County balked at Stern’s ultimatum for extreme property tax abatement, and Stern backed down, did the province finally draw a line in the sand, at which point Stern quickly agreed to the too-rich aid package.***
- In June
20122011, the province put a total of $60 million—$40 million in grants and $20 million for a 49% equity stake—into a subsidiary of Korea’s troubled Daewoo Group that would manufacture wind turbine components at the old Trenton Rail Car plant. Daewoo put up just $30 million. The operation was supposed to create 500 jobs, but by the fall of 2011, employment had peaked at just 70, and the province acknowledged the plant was struggling with slack demand.
- In 2012, the Dexter government staged a smart, successful communications and lobbying campaign to help Irving Shipbuilding land a purported $25 billion shipbuilding contract that could produce up to 11,500 direct and indirect jobs, according to the Conference Board of Canada. The jobs were supposed to begin as early as December 2012, but instead, Irving laid off 70 workers that month, as the start-up date for steel-cutting drifted off to 2015 at the earliest. At the same time, it emerged that the province had agreed to “loan” Irving $304 million (though only $44 million of the amount was repayable, a quality normally intrinsic to the concept of a loan). Then Dexter rejected Freedom of Information requests for details of the loan, but offered selected leaks to favoured reporters.
No one outside government knows the ins and outs of these deals, but on the results, it’s hard to avoid suspicion the New Democrats repeatedly got hosed when they went up against experienced corporate negotiators.
6. Failure at Community Services
It was inevitable that a New Democratic Party government would look more like previous governments than its most ardent supporters might have hoped. No aspect of the Dexter-guided drift to the centre will have disappointed the party’s base more than its failure to reform the imperious bureaucracy of Nova Scotia’s Department of Community Services.
When senior officials of the department, eager to win control of addiction treatment centres over which they had no statutory authority, promoted vague—and, as it turned out, false—allegations of managerial and sexual misconduct against the respected Roman Catholic priest who ran Talbot House in Frenchvale, Community Services Minister Denise Peterson-Rafuse vigorously championed the character assassination for seven months. She also pilloried Talbot’s volunteer board of directors, despite ample evidence the allegations were the empty ravings of an aggrieved crackpot. As political minister for Cape Breton, Deputy Premier Frank Corbett deserves special mention for his failure to step in.
Throughout its history, the NDP had defended the rights of income assistance recipients, but once in power, it turned its back on these citizens, clawing back benefits, and then defending the meanspirited changes with a despicable PR campaign that played to the nastiest stereotypes about welfare recipients. So much for today’s families.
Of all my complaints about Nova Scotia’s first social democratic government, this is the saddest.
Next: Six things the NDP did right. I encourage readers to submit comments and reflections on the NDP’s first term, and my evaluation of it. I will print a selection of the most thought-provoking, least partisan.
* Before swamping me with email, please check the batteries in your irony detectors. I am an atheist, and while I believe the province would be best served by returning an NDP government, despite first-term ineptitude I describe here, I will vote for the Tory in my riding, a decent man with decades of community service facing a cynical challenge from a Liberal whose sole qualification for office is her status as wife of a currently serving Member of Parliament.
** The same can be said most of Nova Scotia’s political reporters, who rarely venture past the Armdale Rotary.
*** Disclosure: I played a small role helping Richmond County prepare for these negotiations.