One down, and one more we-interrupt-your-summer-to-bring-you-this-election-campaign to get through. Perhaps it’s time for a quick recap of the good, the bad and the random from last week’s Nova Scotia provincial election.
First the bad news.
Tim Houston’s Progressive Conservatives will form a majority government.
I say that in the most non-partisan way I can muster.
For more than a decade, Nova Scotians have endured never-ending majority governments — first of the NDP variety and then the Liberal stripe — and the results have been educational if not encouraging.
That’s not to suggest those governments didn’t do some good things. Both did. But they also very quickly presumed — and assumed — the divine right of majority to not only do whatever they decided was in our (and their) best interest but also to be as unaccountable as possible, both to the voters who put them there and also to the usual between-elections legislative and political checks and balances on authoritarianism.
Because… well, they had the majority.
But wait a minute. What does a “majority” mean anyway?
In our first-past-the-post electoral system, it means a party with just 39.5% of provincial voter support but 27 of 51 seats in the House of Assembly (the Liberals in 2017), or barely 38.6% of the vote but 31 of 55 seats (the Tories in 2021) can do whatever the hell it wants.
The percentage gap between a media-hyped “stunning upset” victory and the counter-storyline “crushing” defeat can be minimal. The PCs percentage of the popular vote between 2017 and 2021 increased only by a strikingly un-striking 2.9 percentage points; the Liberal popular vote “collapsed” a whopping 2.8 percentage points in that same span.
But thanks to a faux tectonic shift engineered by that movement of just 12,500 of 418,000 votes, our governing world shook.
What would the next legislature look like if the outcome had been based on popular vote? Instead of 31 seats, the Tories would have 21, the Liberals 20 instead of 17 and the NDP 11 instead of six.
It’s not that simple, of course. How should proportional representation account for independent voices like Elizabeth Scott-McCrossin, or the legitimate local and regional interests? But surely, we could find ways to accommodate those concerns in a fairer electoral system where everyone’s vote really counted.
We’d have a legislature in which the parties would have to compromise, at least for a few years at a time, just to get things done. That’s not so different from the situation in Nova Scotia during much of the first decade of the 21st century when no party was able to claim a majority and we had more accountable governments.
Oh, for the good old days…
• • •
One reform that Premier-designate Tim Houston more than hinted at in his first post-election press conference was a new law setting fixed election dates, bringing Nova Scotia into line with every other jurisdiction in the country.
It’s a start; why should the party in power get to choose when to hold an election? But it’s just a start.
One of Premier Houston’s first pieces of legislation should be a wide-ranging public accountability act that includes a strengthened access to information and protection of privacy act with real powers for the commissioner, opposition chairs for key legislative committees like public accounts and greater ongoing transparency when it comes to fiscal accounting.
Perhaps Houston could even appoint a democratic reform task force to examine ways to make our democracy more democratic…
Perhaps I’ve spent too long in the sun.
Still, on a positive note: one of Houston’s first acts as premier-designate was to invite both opposition leaders to join him for his day-after-election meeting with Dr. Robert Strang, the province’s chief medical officer of health. We can only hope that sense of we’re-all-in-this together will last past his swearing in…
• • •
In the election’s aftermath, many observers noted Tim Houston’s laser-like focus on just one issue — health care writ large — and attributed his success to that.
He isn’t the first politician to find and zero in on an electorally defining issue. In the run-up to the 2009 election, then-NDP leader Darrell Dexter tapped into the same issue to connect with voters en route to his majority.
For Stephen McNeil in 2013, power rates — another evergreen issue that politicians have successfully mined to win votes since at least 1973 — became the defining issue in his first successful campaign for a majority.
But the sad reality is that future politicians will be claiming they have the answer to our health care and/or power rates crises when the first fixed date election campaign kicks off in 2025. And beyond.
Those issues aren’t going away anytime soon.
• • •
The NDP’s Gary Burrill, who returned his party to its more overtly progressive roots following his election as leader in 2016, chose to centre this campaign on a number of interconnected important social issues: homelessness, affordable housing, rent control, minimum wages…
Those don’t seem to have resonated as viscerally with the broad swath of voters as Houston’s hammering on health care. At least they didn’t do anything to move the needle on support for the NDP.
In fact, the NDP lost percentage ground — from 21.5% in 2017 to 21.02% in 2021. That is a minuscule and probably meaningless shift, but it will no doubt be parsed in the days to come as questions are inevitably asked about Burrill’s future as leader.
That would be a shame. We need voices like Gary Burrill’s in the legislature — voices representing the under-represented, which could be properly amplified if we had a fairer electoral system.
On the other hand, the NDP now has some younger, well-experienced women like Claudia Chender and Susan LeBlanc ready to step up and lead. Is it time for the next generation?
I also wonder what might have happened in this election if the City of Halifax had decided to use force to evict the homeless from their tents and temporary shelters the day before rather than the day after we voted.
Would that have — as sometimes happens — galvanized public opinion, shifted a few votes?
We will never know.
• • •
Speaking of leaders, once-and-no-longer premier Iain Rankin had barely wrapped his sort-of election night concession speech — I’m not going anywhere — when the television commentators began speculating that the young premier’s first campaign would also be his last.
There is no question the Liberals ran a disastrous campaign — how else would you describe a 28-point free fall in public opinion polling from campaign beginning to ignominious end? — but there’s plenty of blame to go around.
Start with Dale Palmeter, the Tory-turned-Liberal who masterminded and out-strategized himself from what seemed like an easy 3rd straight Liberal majority into an embarrassing defeat.
I certainly wasn’t privy to what happened inside the campaign, but from the outside it appeared as if Rankin — February’s fresh face of a new generation who cared about the environment and systemic racism and other important issues — suddenly became more mouth puppet and deer in the headlights than man in charge.
Was Election Iain the real Rankin, or a reflection of those around him?
Can he recover from this debacle, start over, become his own person?
He deserves a shot, and — thanks to the Tory majority — his party has the luxury (not to mention the need) of at least a year or two to see how he does.
• • •
Speaking of defeats, was this election a referendum on Stephen McNeil’s legacy as much as on Rankin’s short-lived tenure?
It’s worth noting that most of the few holdovers from the McNeil era who stuck around to contest this election — Randy Delorey, Lloyd Hines, Labi Kousoulis, Suzanne Lohnes-Croft, Kevin Murphy — all went down to defeat.
It isn’t quite on the scale of the 1993 federal election when an intensely unpopular Brian Mulroney made a hasty exit, leaving Kim Campbell to face the electors and came out with only two seats.
But it wasn’t pretty either.
• • •
This election was not without its positive outcomes, even before the ballots were counted. The NDP boasted a majority of 35 women or non-binary candidates, the Liberals nominated 23 women, and the PCs 19.
Twenty of those candidates won. It is not yet parity — just 36% — but we are well past the day when the election of a woman is considered unusual enough to merit a remark. The most remarkable thing about this election is how unremarkable that seemed to be. The day after the vote I had to do my own riding by riding finger count to determine how many women had been elected.
Most of those doing such counting were focused — rightly — on other significant firsts and best showings. The record number of new Black MLAs on their way to Province House, for prime example.
In a province where there have only been five Black MLAs in our entire history, four were elected last Tuesday.
One of them — Suzy Hansen, whose mother came from Africville, the poor but proud black community the city razed in the 1960s in the misguided name of urban renewal — won convincingly for the NDP in Halifax Needham.
Ali Duale, a Somalian refugee who spent seven years in a Kenyan refugee camp before arriving in Canada, won for the Liberals in Halifax Armdale. Duale can also claim another first. He is the first Muslim elected to the legislature.
If that isn’t a sign of changing times, consider this: Halifax Citadel-Sable Island — once one of the most small-c conservative ridings in deepest deep Halifax south end — elected Lisa Lachance. Before winning the seat for the NDP, Lachance may have been best known for the fact she and her partner became one of the first same-sex couples to be legally married in Canada following the Supreme Court’s decision to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples in 2003. That was so not-an-issue this time around I had to look it up on Wikipedia to confirm it.
Or this: when Truro Liberal candidate Tamara Tynes Powell, the only Black candidate running in Truro-Bible Hill-Millbrook-Salmon River, woke up one campaign morning to find her campaign signs had been burned and defaced, her opponents all stepped up on social media to make clear, as Tory Dave Ritcey put it: “We are united against hate, vandalism and violence.”
It shouldn’t have to have been said in 2021, but this is still Nova Scotia and those words matter.
*• • •
At the end of the day, of course, we are where we are. Tim Houston is soon to become the premier of Nova Scotia. He will lead a majority government. He has promised to focus on health care, spending what is needed to improve the system without worrying, in the short term, that he will be running up deficits.
Some of his promises make sense to me. Others — like his “Better Pay Cheque Guarantee” sound like thinly disguised, and hard to police, tax breaks for those who get more than enough already. There is nothing in his platform about making the wealthy pay their share of taxes, for example, or increasing too-low corporate taxes to help pay for some of what the province needs to spend on health care and so much else.
And I have doubts too about his views that the market will provide affordable housing for those who really need it, or increase poverty-level wages, or…
Well, we’ll see, won’t we? Again… Always.