A Nova Scotia election this fall? I don’t think so


Call me contrarian, but I don’t believe Nova Scotia will have an election this fall.

Speculation about a fall vote has been rampant since Province House reporters and opposition MLAs raised the alarm back in May.

The government’s five-year mandate doesn’t expire until October, 2018, and the usual four-year benchmark between elections is still a year off. But the latest Corporate Research Associates poll shows McNeil’s Liberals with a commanding 59 percent to the PC’s 21 percent and the NDP’s 18. So the temptation to go early exists.

Pretending to call an early election might be a smart strategy. It forces opposition parties into panicked preparations where methodical planning would be more to their advantage. It persuades the seatless third party leader to pass up a risky byelection, reinforcing an image of weakness.

Actually calling an election, two years before the government must, poses unnecessary risk of voter rebellion.

As Graham Steele has pointed out, Premier John Buchanan twice went to the polls after just three years, in 1981 and 1984, winning his second and third majority governments. (As his popularity faded toward the end of the decade, Buchanan waited four years, and barely eked out his last majority in 1988.) But there is no shortage of contrary examples:

  • In April, 2014, the Parti Quebecois’s 19-month-old minority government held a slight lead in the polls when Premier Pauline Marois called an election, hoping the PQ’s nativist Charter of Values would propel her to victory. Instead, she lost her own seat, and the PQ won the smallest vote percentage in its history as the Liberals cruised to victory in 70 of the National Assembly’s 125 seats.
  • Alberta’s Conservatives topped the polls in April 2015, when Premier Jim Prentice called an election two years before he had to. A month later, Prentice lost his seat and 44 years of Conservative rule came to an abrupt end with the election of a previously unthinkable NDP majority.
  • Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives were running neck-and-neck with the NDP, and the Liberals trailed, when Harper called an unusually long 11-week election campaign last August. By early October, anti-Harper voters began to coalesce around Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, who went on to win a majority with 184 of Parliament’s 338 seats.
  • At the start of the 2013 British Columbia election, the NDP led the Liberals almost two-to-one. They topped every poll during the campaign–20 in all–only to lose by 4-1/2 points as Liberal Premier Christy Clarke‘s government won an increased majority with 49 of the legislature’s 85 seats.
  • For most of the 2014 Ontario Election, PC leader Tim Hudak was running neck-and-neck with Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne, but on election day, the Liberals won by 7 percentage points, capturing 58 of the legislature’s 107 seats.
  • It’s not recent history, but the most notorious example of early election hubris occurred in 1976, when Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa’s Liberals held 102 of 110 National Assembly seats, the Party Quebecois just six. Bourassa called an election three years into his mandate, hoping to capitalize on the success of the Montreal Olympics. Rene Levesque’s separatist Party Quebecois scrambled to an upset victory with 70 seats, in a vote that would roil Quebec and Canada for decades to come.

I think McNeil will win the next election, even if he calls it this fall. I don’t sense any great mood to throw the bastards out, as I did in 2013, 2009, and 1999. But Nova Scotia voters are volatile. The last time we elected back-to-back majorities, Ronald Regan was President of the United States, and the Soviet Army was fighting US-backed Mujahideen guerrillas in Afghanistan.

If they get the feeling Premier McNeil is manipulating the election process, voters could turn quickly.

If McNeil waits until next fall—or even spring, after tabling a solidly balanced budget—the issue of manipulating voters with an untimely election will be off the table.

That’s what he should do, and my guess is, that’s what he will do.

But I’ll have my camera phone ready, just in case.