HALIFAX — Nova Scotians welcome change, a local saying goes, as long as everything stays the same. Perhaps that’s why no provincial government has been denied a second term in office for more than a century. Until now.
Stephen McNeil, a former small-business owner making his second run for the premiership, led the Liberal party to a decisive victory in Tuesday’s election, winning 33 of 51 seats in the legislature to oust Premier Darrell Dexter and Atlantic Canada’s first New Democratic government.
Dexter went into the election with a comfortable majority but trailing badly in opinion polls that proved to be all-too-accurate. In a stunning reversal, the NDP managed to salvage just seven of 31 seats as it plummeted from first to worst.
Jamie Baillie, in his first campaign as leader of the Progressive Conservatives, won 11 seats, enough to leapfrog into second place and form the official Opposition. Dexter lost his own suburban Halifax riding by a handful of votes, completing the NDP’s humiliation.
After a historic breakthrough four years ago, the New Democrats made history again — as Nova Scotia’s only one-term government since 1882, when Victoria was Queen and John A. Macdonald was in his prime.
It’s tough to pinpoint a single event or decision that triggered the NDP’s unprecedented collapse, but poor timing was a factor. Dexter inherited the previous PC government’s ballooning deficit and the global recession shifted his focus from expanding social programs to creating or saving jobs and staunching economic wounds.
The NDP backed Irving Shipbuilding’s successful bid for a $25-billion contract to build frigates and patrol vessels in Halifax, providing a $260-million forgivable loan for shipyard upgrades. Dexter seemed to play favourites, cancelling a subsidized ferry link to Maine and dealing a blow to tourism in one region while spending millions to save a Cape Breton paper mill.
As big corporations enjoyed bailouts, ordinary Nova Scotians endured tax pain. The NDP hiked the provincial sales tax by two per cent to tackle the deficit, breaking an election promise. By the time Dexter unveiled a balanced budget earlier this year — and a new promise to roll back the tax increase — he faced an electorate determined to exact revenge.
The breaking point may have been the spectacle of a government struggling to balance the books while handing over millions of dollars to the billionaire Irvings. Tomorrow’s payoff — thousands of shipyard jobs in the years ahead — was not enough to overcome today’s poor optics.
The Liberals struck a nerve when they unleashed television ads urging voters to “take the chequebook away from the NDP.” McNeil surged ahead of the NDP in the polls a year ago and never looked back.
Dexter campaigned on promises of more money for services and better days ahead. NDP attack ads portrayed McNeil as inexperienced and “Not Worth the Risk.” But this election was all about the rulers, not the challenger. Dexter spent almost as much time apologizing for past mistakes as he did building a case for a second mandate.
McNeil, with everything to lose, ran a safe campaign. His vows to “put Nova Scotia first,” end corporate handouts and bring down high power rates struck a populist chord. He offered more money for education and defied political wisdom by refusing to promise to reduce taxes — at least until he gets a good look at the state of the province’s finances.
The Liberals have been out of power since 1999. McNeil’s victory is the party’s first majority win in two decades. A cartoon in the province’s flagship daily, The Chronicle Herald, may have hit the mark by suggesting the Liberals were popular because no one could remember when they last held power.
McNeil, 48, once operated a small-town appliance repair business. He now faces the challenges of running a province with an aging and shrinking population, a $14-billion debt and some of the highest taxes and power rates in the country. “I will make certain our plan is delivered,” he told supporters in his victory speech, “and that our commitments are kept.”
Dexter’s defeat leaves Manitoba with the country’s lone NDP government and comes on the heels of the party’s collapse last spring in British Columbia. Federal leader Thomas Mulcair — unlike Justin Trudeau, who spent a day campaigning with McNeil — steered clear of the train wreck unfolding on the East Coast, hoping to contain the damage to the political brand.
Most of the rural ridings that swept the NDP into office in 2009 reverted to the Tories and Liberals. An urban Halifax power base that took decades to build was almost wiped out. Dexter’s days as leader are clearly numbered. And a party that made history twice in little more than four years can only guess at what the future holds.
» Dean Jobb, the Winnipeg Free Press East Coast correspondent, is associate director of the school of journalism at the University of King’s College in Halifax.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition October 11, 2013