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.
Into 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: email@example.com.]