Why do new governments get a honeymoon?

Because, for all our cynicism about politics, we want them to succeed.

We wanted Darrell Dexter to succeed, and our unrealistic expectations for his government never recovered from its series of early missteps.

Despite a majority of comparable magnitude, Stephen McNeil comes to office with far lower expectations than his predecessor. His deliberately bland campaign included a few platform whoppers he’ll be foolhardy to implement (one big health board, deregulation of electricity markets, defunding energy Efficiency Nova Scotia), but for the most part, he is free from extravagant commitments. This lowers the risk of early disappointments, though not necessarily missteps.

McNeil has another advantage over Dexter. Whatever doubts we may harbour as to his own ability to handle the difficult job he has won, his cabinet includes a solid core of experienced and shrewd political veterans with at least the potential to manage complex departmental responsibilities.

Where Dexter had only Steele, MacDonald, and Estabrooks to inspire confidence, McNeil has Regan, Whelan, Samson, MacLellan, Glavine, and Casey.

They have a tough job. We wish them well because, it bears repeating, we all want them to succeed.




Make that 1,049 votes from annihilation, theoretically

Sharp-penciled Contrarian reader Gus Reed points out that the Dips could have been wiped off Nova Scotia’s electoral map by as few as 1,049 votes, not 2,087 as I wrote Friday. For this to happen, all the defectors would have had to switch their votes to the second-place finisher in their respective ridings. 1,049 switchers would have done the trick under those highly theoretical circumstances.

But then the whole exercise was theoretical.

By the same token, Darrell Dexter would have needed only 11 Liberal voters switching to him to hold his seat.

These scenarios raise another question, likewise theoretical. In the 2000 Florida recount, we learned that the US election system is insufficiently accurate to determine the winner in extremely close races. No one knows who won that primary; the outcome was decided when five justices of the U.S. Supreme Court chose the candidate they liked best.

For all its apparent crudeness—paper ballots marked with a stubby wooden pencil—Canada’s election system is much better at deciding close contests. But can it reliably determine the outcome of races in which a single vote separates the top two finishers? Probably not. Party apparatchiks could always find reasonable doubt about the validity, eligibility, or probable intentions of at least one ballot, or at least one voter. My hunch is that a string of ridings decided by one vote would result in a string of judicially ordered by=elections.

Losers & winners

Nova Scotians tune in on election night to learn two things: Who won, and who are the sore losers. Darrell Dexter was a smart loser, delivering the best speech of the night, a gracious amalgam of congratulations to the winners, and thanks and condolences for his followers, upbeat but laced with sadness he could not hide.

Perhaps the worst thing about the crushing defeat meted out to the NDP is the suboptimal quality of the survivors.

  • I heard both both N-Dips and Tories Tuesday night predict Sterling Belliveau will bolt to the Liberals who, if they are smart, will not take him.
  • DPR, the minister who stood by while her department nearly destroyed Cape Breton’s venerable Talbot House Recovery Centre, snuck through in a three-way race with just 35.3 percent of the vote, two percent more than the theoretical minimum. As the member who needed more babysitting than any other cabinet minister, mark her down as a liability for probable interim leader Maureen MacDonald.
  • By standing the gaff, Gordie Gosse and Lenore Zann (that’s Zann, Paul, not Zahn) win fresh respect as gifted politicians. Still, they might not be your first choice as  lieutenants to rebuild a party.
  • Frank Corbett, having maxed out his pensions, will lose money for every day he hangs in the back benches, a location that will hold little charm for him. Under pressure to stay until the Liberal honeymoon eases, Nanky will be eyeing the exits. Cape Breton Centre will be a hard seat for the NDP to hold in a by-election.

Jamie Baillie succeeded in restoring the party base, enabling him to address the province last night as a winner, albeit one with only 11 seats. He carried out this role with appropriate enthusiasm, but spoke far too long. Viewers want a spirited but quick thank-you wave from the second-place finisher, not a detailed policy address.

Still, it was tacky for Premier-designate Stephen McNeil to start his victory lap while the Opposition Leader was still speaking — a possible sign that for all his promises of a respectful demeanour, the new premier won’t be gentle in the corners.

McNeil has a tough job ahead, not least because of populist policy positions that will serve the province and his government poorly should he have the ill-judgment to implement them. He would do well to cast a backward eye at the lessons of humility so harshly meted out to his predecessor tonight.

NDP rights and wrong — readers comment

Many of those who responded to my posts on the Dexter government’s mistakes and accomplishments (here,  herehere, and here) were disappointed New Democrats.

To my complaint that a small cadre of apparatchiks in the premier’s office exercised far too much central control, a party supporter employed in the administration offered this colourful label:

[A] group of too-young, nasty, disconnected, Harper-style assholes.

Another longtime party supporter on the party’s left flank wrote:

One of the most disappointing failures of the government was not bring more talented, knowledgeable, and competent people into the government and the party.

In every area the government claims to be interested in improving—the environment, poverty, health care, metal health, economic development, law reform, poverty reduction—there are activists who have toiled for years to bring about change. Many of these people are highly competent, and often more knowledgeable about these issue then either the elected politicians or the departmental bureaucrats.

Many, but certainly not all, are (or were) likely NDP supporters. They represent of pool of talent and possible new ideas that has been left almost completely untapped. I’m not suggesting that they should have immediately done a wholesale house cleaning, either in the government or the party but they should have immediately began recruiting among their ranks and brought them into influence as opportunities arose.

If they had, perhaps some of the mistakes you listed might have been avoided and we might also have seen much more solid progressive legislation. I think the similar case can be made for the approach to cabinet selection.

On the positive side, in spite of making some major mistakes and ignoring for too long concerned voices from their base, they have generally been more competent then any recent government, and much more competent then either of the opposition parties are likely to be. They have also made major positive change in a number of areas such as health care and the environment. Yet in spite of this it seems as if we are about to return to mediocre ineptitude.

Over the last 48 hours, polls have tightened from the breathtaking 30-point Liberal lead reported by Corporate Research Associates early in the week, to a merely commanding 18-20 point lead Thursday. The prospect of the Liberals carrying all but a handful of seats seems to have given some citizens pause, including one Halifax voter who was overheard to say:

I don’t like [the NDP], but the government wasn’t THAT bad.

On the weekend, a closer look at the Liberals’ election-lite platform.



That Don Mills poll

Don Mills sounds nervous.

Nova Scotia’s best known pollster has been conducting a rolling poll for the Halifax Chronicle-Herald, and over the last week, his numbers have pointed to an historic rout. For the last five days, he has shown Stephen McNeil’s Liberals holding steady between 55 and 57 percent of decided voters—enough to propel him to a lopsided majority.

“We’re under a lot of scrutiny here,” he told Contrarian.

Here’s the latest edition, published Tuesday morning:

To understand how unusual such an outcome would be, I looked at every Nova Scotia election since 1960. Over those 15 provincial votes:

  • The winning party got more than 55 percent of the vote only once: Robert Stanfield’s PCs took 56.2 percent in 1963, in what was essentially a two-party race.
  • Only three times has the winning party won more than 50 percent of the vote: Stanfield did it in ’63 and ’67; John Buchanan got 50.6 percent in 1984.
  • In all three of these contests, the opposition party or parties were crushed. The Liberals won just four seats in 1963 and just six in ’67. When Buchanan got just 50 percent of the vote in the 1984 election, the opposition parties shared 10 seats: six for the Liberals, three for the NDP, and one for independent Paul MacEwan.

John Savage’s Liberals won 49.7 percent of the vote in 1993, and took 40 seats to the PCs’ nine and the NDP’s 3. All of these number reflect the reality that, in a first-past-the-post election system, when one party’s vote percentage goes above 50 percent, the number of seats it can win goes up exponentially.

Here’s the historical record, minus third parties and independents:


[Yellow highlighter indicates a minority government. The complete spreadsheet, which includes third parties and independents, can be downloaded here.]

If CRA’s numbers are anywhere near correct, and I expect they are, then every assumption about this election goes out the window. Seats thought to be in play will fall easily to the Liberals. Some seats assumed to be safe will fall to the Liberals. The premier’s seat, Jamie Baillie’s, and those of prominent cabinet ministers, could be at risk.

Mills views this cautiously. Much could change in a week, but if the current spread holds, he expects both opposition parties will have high single digit seat tallies, “closer to 10 than to zero.” If the total exceeds 55 percent, Mills may be understating this.

“To have [a 30-point spread] in a three-party election is extraordinary,” Mills said. “I’m stunned by it. It’s very hard to explain.”

On which, more later.

Six things the NDP did wrong – part 2

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.

NDP Mainland Seats 2009-600

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.

CatSo 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.
  • port-hawkesbury-paperIn 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 2012 2011, 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.

Dexter-RafuseWhen 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.

Six things the NDP did wrong — part 1

Six things the NDP did wrong — Part 1

1. The Expense Scandal

In the election of 2009, Nova Scotia voters did what the NDP had been asking them to do for decades: They ditched the same-old, same-old parties, and handed the keys to an entirely new crowd. There was an air of expectation, if not euphoria, as citizens waited to see what this party of policy wonks would do to shake Nova Scotia out of its malaise.

What they got for the first six months was… nothing. It had been obvious for at least a year that Dexter was odds-on favorite to become premier, yet the fact of governing seemed to come as a surprise for which the party was completely unready. Summer came and went, and the fall brought no new legislation, no new programs, no new ideas.

Darrell DexterInto this six-month vacuum of policy, programs, and news came the MLAs expense scandal, a slew of politicians filching and fudging in a manner not seen since the Buchanan administration.

From the new government’s perspective, the scandal didn’t exactly come out of the blue. The province’s showboat Auditor General had been working on it for months, and he gave the government an advance copy. Yet when it broke, the premier who had shown such skill earning the trust of a skeptical electorate, reacted like an isolated corporate executive shocked to discover the rough and tumble of public life.

On a southern golfing vacation, Dexter refused to return and face angry voters. In his absence, they grew angrier. When Dexter finally deigned to return, he reacted with petulent, Dingwall-like faith in his entitlement to his entitlements.

In the space of a few days, the public’s hope for a new style of democracy was crushed—and it has never recovered. In the eyes of thousands of people who voted NDP for the first or second times in their lives, Dexter’s boys had shown themselves to be no different from anyone else.

This astonishing failure of leadership coloured everything that followed.

2. Central Command and Control

If the new government was slow to innovate in matters of policy and programs, it was quick to impose a new political order. In previous administrations, cabinet ministers had been free to choose their own executive assistants, those necessary operatives who advise on the politically touchy matters that cross any minister’s desk.

In the Dexter government, the premier’s office not only chose executive assistants, but moved them from department to department and minister to minister with a frequency that had never been seen. These were not so much political aides to ministers as the eyes and ears of the premier and the half dozen men—they were almost all men—who ran “The Centre,” or “One Gov.,” as the civil service quickly learned to call the premier’s office at One Government Place.

The EAs swung big bats. Very little happened without their approval and that of Dan O’Conner, Matt Hebb, and Paul Black, their cautious, slow-moving, political overseers at One Gov.

This led to a second astonishing feature of the Dexter Government: the frequency with which its top-down, command-and-control style of issues management was compared to that of Canada’s right-wing federal government under Stephen Harper. Amazing.

3. The Politicization of Communications Nova Scotia

For today’s families,” the NDP slogan in the 2009 election, was one of those empty vessels into which many kinds of voters could pour whatever values they held dear. Traditional families, working couples, single-parent families, same-sex couples, stay-at-home dads, families with one parent in Fort McMurray—they could all see themselves in the phrase, “today’s families.” The slogan was a way to signal support to any of those groups without arousing the ire of the others.

So fond “of today’s families” were the wise men of the premier’s office, they frog-marched the slogan over to Communications Nova Scotia (CNS) as soon as the election was over, and ordered its continual repetition. In the years since, the phrase has appeared in no fewer than 125 CNS news releases.

This might seem a small thing, but it’s not. For at least two decades, through Liberal and Tory administrations, Communications Nova Scotia had protected its independence as a source of factual information about government activities and policies, not a mouthpiece for the party in power.

The Dexter administration’s appropriation of the government information agency was not simply heavy-handed, it was incompetently executed. CNS announcements took on a forced cheeriness in which happy citizens celebrated their steadfast march the New Jerusalem.

Thus, a news release announcing the award of a contract to replace an important bridge did not begin with the name of the successful bidder, the amount of the contract, and the length of time until the work would be completed. No, it began like this:

Strolling, riding, biking or hiking Cape Bretoners and visitors alike will soon enjoy a new bridge on Keltic Drive in Sydney River.

This turns out to be a template imposed by apparatchiks from the premier’s office.

[Some subset of] Nova Scotians will [experience something good] because of [something the Dexter government has done].

Browse through the CNS archives and you’ll find dozens of examples. It’s not good communications. It’s clumsy propaganda of the kind one expects from isolated functionaries who’ve lost perspective on their woodenness of partisan prose. It reinforces the public impression that these guys differ little from the Tweedledees and Tweedledums who preceded them.

[In part 2, I’ll tackle the government’s estrangement from rural voters, its lamentable track record in big negotiations, and its failure to clean up the mess at Community Services. Then six important things the NDP did right. I welcome comments on these election posts, and will publish a sample of the best I receive. Email: comment@contrarian.ca.]

Will the government trample wheelchair users in its rush to an election?

Last spring, a disability rights organization surveyed the constituency offices of Nova Scotia MLAs and found hardly any were fully accessible to citizens who use wheelchairs.

In May, the James McGregor Stewart Society cajoled the House of Assembly Management Commission into meeting and considering ways to remove barriers from MLAs’ offices. The campaign hinged on passing changes before the election, so newly elected MLAs could be required to find accessible space, while returning MLAs would have a modest grace period to comply.

accessible-icon-updatedI was skeptical. I expected the inconvenience of modifying or relocating constituency offices might trump the obvious injustice of preventing citizens from entering MLAs’ workplaces, let alone working in them.

I was wrong. Commission members from all parties recognized that Nova Scotia lags behind other jurisdictions on this human rights issue. To their credit, they worked collaboratively to develop a practical plan for breaking down barriers that separate Nova Scotians who use wheelchairs and their elected representatives.

That plan is now in jeopardy due to an inexplicable delay in calling the commission meeting required to pass the regulation, something only Speaker Gordie Gosse has the power to do. Calls and emails to Gosse’s office were eventually returned by Premier Darrell Dexter’s press secretary.

“We have every intention of getting a meeting called as soon as we can,” Jennifer Stewart said. “All three parties are agreed, and it has to happen.”

The problem is that the Commission ceases to exist the moment Stewart’s boss calls an election, an event some predict as early as this Saturday.* At that point, the Commission can no longer pass the agree-upon regulation, thus destroying the crucial proviso that MLAs elected for the first time in the forthcoming vote must find barrier-free offices.

That the matter has drawn the attention of “the centre”—the premier’s office, from which all decisions in this highly centralized government flow—is a good sign. An opposition member of the commission told Contrarian he expects a meeting August 14, although he hasn’t received official notice yet.

Meanwhile, the James McGregor Stewart** Society continues to entreat the Speaker to get the meeting called and the regulation passed. Surely Darrell Dexter will not want to begin an election campaign in a way that wrecks an all-party agreement to remedy this lamentable injustice.

* Find Contrarian’s prediction of the probable date here.

** I did not think to ask Ms. Stewart if she is related to the redoubtable Pictou native, one of Canada’s most accomplished lawyers, who had lifelong mobility issues arising from a childhood bout with polio.

Thoughts on election timing

Since 1970, four Nova Scotia governments have delayed elections into the fifth year of their mandates. Three of the four got clobbered.

  • In 1978, Gerald Regan’s Liberals went almost seven months into their fifth year, then dropped from 31 seats to 17.
  • In 1993, Donald Cameron’s Progressive Conservatives went almost eight months into their fifth year, and fell from 28 seats to 9.
  • Almost five years later, Russell MacLellan led the Liberals from a commanding 40 seats to a humiliating 19-seat tie with the New Democrats, allowing him to govern only briefly with the slenderest of minorities.
  • In 2003, John Hamm went just 10 days into his fifth year, and came up two seats short of a second majority.

Darrell Dexter’s is the fifth government since 1970 to linger into a fifth year. If my guess is right, and he schedules an election for October 1st or 8th, he’ll have been in power four years and four months.

dexter_4Dexter would not have held off so long but for a terrible string of polls starting in spring of 2012, when Stephen McNeil’s Liberals surged into a first-place tie. The latest Corporate Research Associates poll, in June, showed the Liberals with 45 percent of decided voters, to the NDP’s 26 percent, and the PCs’ 24 percent. The N-dips claim their own confidential polls are better, but they’d have to be much better to offer any encouragement at all.

Polls taken between elections may tell you which way the wind is blowing, but they don’t tell you how hard. That last CRA survey found 55 percent of respondents undecided about how they would vote. People just haven’t turned their minds to the question yet.

That’s why I don’t think Dexter will call an election before Labour Day. To win a second term, the NDP needs to win the campaign. A plurality of voters needs to decide that Dexter looks, sounds, and acts more like a premier than McNeil, whose crowd-pleasing but benighted policy proposals, especially on energy, may not hold up under election scrutiny.

For that to happen, voters need to be paying attention. They won’t do that in the sweet summer days of August.

Even then, it may be too late. There’s a lot of anger out there—some of it warranted, some of thoughtlessly peevish. If voters get a notion to throw the bums out, no election timing legerdemain will stop them.

No NS election tomorrow

In a telephone interview moments ago, Jennifer Stewart, press secretary to Premier Darrell Dexter, said “there absolutely will not be an election called tomorrow.”

We were discussing election timing because of the danger that an early election call could torpedo all-party efforts to bring in new rules ensuring that people in wheelchairs can visit and even work in MLAs offices in Nova Scotia. More on that shortly.