“Steve Craig won the byelection for MLA in Sackville-Cobequid…
The district has long been solidly NDP, so a PC victory is notable,
but I wouldn’t read too much into it.”

Tim Bousquet
June 19, 2019

Tim is right, of course. It is way too early to read anything of significance from the political leavings in the bottom of one electoral liquor class. The sample size — a single constituency byelection in the muddling middle of any government’s mandate — is much too small to be statistically, let alone politically relevant.

And yet… And yet those of us in the political chattering classes inevitably find the opportunity to discern meaning from the meaningless impossible to resist.

So let us begin.

Steve Craig

Last Tuesday, now-former municipal councillor Steve Craig — whom Tim described in his  Morning File post as the “most intelligent and savvy” of the Sackville district city council candidates he interviewed way back in 2012, not to mention on the progressive side of the Progressive Conservative continuum, not to forget a “good governance” councillor who “did at least talk about asserting commission power over the police force” — won the byelection in Sackville-Cobequid.

It was not an easy or resounding victory and wasn’t ultimately decided until the final polls reported just before 10:30 pm. When the counting had all been re-counted, Craig won 42% of the vote compared to 39% (2,655 – 2,472 = 183 votes in the difference) for Lara Fawthrop, the NDP candidate, a veteran teacher who had spent more than a decade teaching music and English at Sackville High.

What made the result interesting — and perhaps significant — is that Sackville has been NDP orange since 1984 when another NDP educator, John Holm, first won the seat for the party. That victory was sweetly significant; it was the NDP’s first suburban Halifax beachhead in what had been a determinedly two-party state of Nova Scotia. Sackville became the pointy end of the NDP’s metro electoral assault during the 1990s, the one which eventually led the party to government in 2009.

For 35 years and 10 elections, through Conservative, Liberal, and NDP majority and minority governments, not to forget the silk-smooth transition from NDP MLA John Holm to NDP MLA and cabinet minister Dave Wilson in 2003, Sackville-Cobequid has remained steadfast in its support for the party. In 2006, Wilson even defeated one-and-the-same Steve Craig, capturing more than 54% of the vote to Craig’s 30%. In 2017, despite Stephen McNeil winning a second consecutive majority government, Wilson again held Sackville with just over 44% of the popular vote.

And Sackville wasn’t just hands-off NDP provincial turf either. Federally, popular Peter Stoffer owned the riding for 18 years, all the way from Alexa McDonough’s 1997 Nova Scotia breakthrough to Justin Trudeau’s 2015 Liberal sweep.

So, for the NDP, this particular byelection defeat stings badly.

NDP leader Gary Burrill (Jennifer Henderson)

And it inevitably raised enough uncomfortable questions about current NDP leader Gary Burrill’s leadership that he was forced to email party members with a day-after acknowledgement that what had happened was not “an easy pill for us to swallow,” coupled with his own sky-is-not-falling determination to be “clear about a number of things that are not changed one iota by this result.” Including the reality he planned to stick around as leader. “That question is not on our screen,” Burrill insisted to reporters. “We’ve had a disappointment and we’re registering that today, but the sky has not fallen on us.”

Not yet.

There is an irony in all of this, of course. Fawthrop’s 39% of the vote last week would have been enough (barely) to win the riding in 2013 when Wilson himself held on against the Liberal tide with just 38.45% of votes cast.

In politics, less than a percentage point can be the difference between forward-momentum headlines and calls for a leader’s head.

The other significant — and related — talking point out of last week’s byelection, of course, was the collapse of the Liberal vote. Michel Hindlet was the party’s standard bearer in both last week’s byelection and also in 2017. In 2017, he took 25.9% of the vote, enough for a (distant) second place. Last week, he laid claim to barely 10% of the total number of ballots cast.

“It’s for that reason that the PCs were able to win in this close contest with the NDP,” Cape Breton University political science professor Tom Urbaniak told News 95.7’s Rick Howe. “So there is clearly a message for change here.”

While voters often use byelections to register their displeasure with the policies of whatever government is in power — without having to toss the bastards out in the process — there are indications the pricked balloon of Liberal support in Sackville last week may be a harbinger of worse to come for the governing party.

According to the latest public opinion poll for Narrative Quarterly Research, voter satisfaction with Stephen McNeil’s Liberals is falling — and fast. In just the past three months, those who tell the pollsters they’re happy with McNeil’s performance plummeted by six percentage points (based on a telephone survey of 800 Nova Scotians, considered accurate to within 3.5 percentage points 95 times out of a hundred and blah blah blah).

McNeil’s satisfaction rating now stands at 35%. That’s two per cent less than the worst rating for Darrell Dexter’s NDP government in the year before its 2013 defeat.

Uh-oh.

“We’ve never seen a government re-elected in this region if their satisfaction level is below 50%,” explains Narrative’s COO Margaret Chapman, “so when he’s at 35% here, there’s certainly a lot to turn around before the election comes.”

There are caveats, of course. The poll shows Liberals and Tories (Tim Houston, new proprietor) are now in a statistical tie for voter support. And McNeil is still — barely — the choice of those polled to lead the province. (Go figure.) But 31% of those polled told the poll taker they were currently undecided, 6% declared they didn’t intend to vote ( a rightful pox on them all), and 4% didn’t want to be disturbed during dinner.

Which means?

To paraphrase the late John Diefenbaker, polls— especially those taken between elections — are… well, “I’ve always been fond of dogs,” the former Tory prime minister once said, “and they are the one animal that knows the proper treatment to give to poles.”

The same — and worse — can be said of trying to see the future in last week’s one-off byelection results.

But we are about halfway through this government’s mandate. There are already so many political-junkie questions. Will Stephen McNeil stick around to defend his crown one more time? Will Gary Burrill survive his own party’s jittery naysayers to fight another day? Will Tim Houston’s Tories manage to maintain their fast forward electoral momentum without ever being forced to say what they’re for instead of just what they’re against? Will the NDP become roadkill once again as voters gang up to get rid of these bastards only to end up electing those bastards? Will any of this ever lead us to a saner electoral system than first past the post?

Read too much into it? Me? Never.

Stephen Kimber

Stephen Kimber is an award-winning writer, editor, broadcaster, and educator. A journalist for more than 50 years whose work has appeared in most Canadian newspapers and magazines, he is the author of...

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  1. The NDP have lost both this seat and that of Truro-Bible Hill-Millbrook-Salmon River with Lenore Zann (leaving the NDP Caucus to sit as an independent pending a run for the Trudeau Liberals in the federal seat of Cumberland-Colchester in October, where she is well known). This reduces the party back to 5 seats – the same number they had before Gary Burrill won his seat the last election.

    With only a 41% turnout it doesn’t seem the good folks of Sackville-Cobequid were utterly desperate for change (although low turnouts are the rule in by-elections). The collapse of the Liberals and close NDP-Tory result suggests this was an Anything-But-Liberal vote. This is certainly a winnable seat for the NDP in the next election if they can get their house in order, but therein lies the rub.

    Burrill may well have alienated Zann, an experienced MLA capable of doing more than she was allowed. I know she felt frustrated.

    Unfortunately Gary seems to be good at alienating people. Two years ago Nova Scotia NDP president Bill Matheson and vice-president Judy Swift both stepped down from their positions with the Party’s executive. In an email subsequently sent to the NDP’s provincial council, Swift blamed her departure on the actions and attitude of Gary. Ex-MLA Marian Mancini also rapidly came and went inside one electoral cycle after being overloaded with responsibilities as an incoming rookie. She is a lawyer and would have make a first class justice critic. If he is indeed responsible, whatever Gary is doing to cause this exodus of experienced talent has to stop, and if not then the party needs a new leader – and fast!

    If progressive voters of Sackville-Cobequid are indeed looking for an alternative to the Liberals – currently wearing conservative costume (while that still sells) – it’s odd they would return a member of the permanently conservative party. While Steve Craig may be relatively progressive compared to most Tories, the party leadership will decide upon policies that will ultimately be torqued to suit the interests of business and the wealthy, as they always have. What Steve thinks may not matter all that much in the end. Maybe people in Sackville-Cobequid are not convinced the NDP will form government any time soon, and they want to back a winning horse this time, even if that means trading one old-style right wing party for another?

    My point is that to have any electoral hope Nova Scotia’s New Democrats must start looking to voters like a government in waiting. Dexter was able to do that much. Right now they look like a group of well intentioned protesters.

    Last I heard their finance critic was none other than Gary himself! Now Gary is a smart, decent guy with a substantial background as a clergyman but to my knowledge neither he nor anyone else in their caucus has any serious finance credibility. How can any opposition party draft shadow budgets or propose major policy initiatives and be taken seriously without some kind of credible background in finance? This just invites the old-time non-progressive parties to continue dismissing them as tax-and-spend amateurs who would bankrupt the province if they ever won power. This has to be addressed before any progressive agenda can advance in Nova Scotia.

    The NDP have legitimate concerns and ideas that could lead to much needed policy, especially regarding poverty and health care. It’s a pity that Nova Scotia voters (those who bother) end up playing ping-pong between two right wing parties flogging the same warmed over old policies and who are hostile toward low income working people in practice no matter what they say at election time.

    Or is it that this practice continues because everything is just working out so well for everyone in Nova Scotia these days?