Young blood for shaky Grits, but no government-in-waiting

The Liberals win byelections in Yarmouth and Glace Bay with bright young fellows. Is something going on in our politics? The Liberals on the march, perhaps, against a fading NDP?

Let's inquire.

It is a marvellous victory for the Liberals -- especially in Glace Bay where logic would have dictated that they'd be in bad odour because a sitting Liberal resigned amid scandal. It's especially good for Stephen McNeil, whose iffy status as leader is firmed up.

But I wonder. How long is the idealism of two bright young fellows going to last sitting around with some of the old horses in the Liberal caucus? Will they end up like most of them -- locally strong MLAs in a party that doesn't really have a core?

Although these two victories should help, the leader-averse party is still a long way from having a convincing act. McNeil is the first of seven Liberal leaders, going back to Gerald Regan in the 1970s, to be given a chance to fight a second election. And there were some significant people objecting even to giving him that chance that at the party's spring convention.

Further, the party hasn't yet delivered the headline that would set it free: that it has given away to charity its tainted trust fund of some $2 million. Raised in part from criminal activity -- illegal rakeoffs from liquor store sales in the 1970s -- it is a link to old politics, old corruption. I'm waiting.

McNeil caught my attention with something he said in reaction to the byelection victories. The public, he said, has been "pleased with the message we've had over the past year." This puzzled me. Off the top, the only thing I can remember of the Liberal message was the insistent attempt to find scandal where there patently wasn't: in the fact that the fisherman who bought Fisheries Minister Sterling Belliveau's boat got a loan from the Fisheries Loan Board, like any other fisherman.

Indeed, although McNeil is himself an excellent young fellow by leadership standards -- mid-40s, earnest and personable -- his pronouncements often sound shallow and old-politics. It took me a while to figure this out, but it's not just him. Here's a guy with no real platform to stand on, leading a party with a limited number of talking points, and who's got to be wary of his caucus, who look on leaders as creatures of passage.

In short, the Liberals have no message and bad body language, and until they straighten that out, they'll continue to be a residually malfunctioning part of Nova Scotia politics.

Meanwhile, Zach Churchill, the precocious 26-year-old who energized the Yarmouth byelection, partly out of sheer joy at the prospect of getting a job at home -- he was working in Ottawa -- couldn't wait to get to work on a "plan for Yarmouth." He also declared that his approach is to work across party lines and bring people together to reach common goals. Excellent. Darrell Dexter should work with this guy.

But can the Liberal party handle such positive vigour, or will young Zach, and Glace Bay's 31-year-old Geoff MacLellan, merely find themselves old before their time sitting alongside old Grit warhorse Manning MacDonald and company?

Meanwhile, the assumption that the NDP is fading needs some work. The NDP didn't have its act together when it took over, had an annus horribilis mainly because of the expenses scandal, the premier was fingered by the auditor general as one of the culprits having too much stuff on public expense and is struggling to regain the high ground, and the fiscal situation it took over was horrible.

However, amid all that, Finance Minister Graham Steele expertly navigated his budget -- likely the NDP's most difficult -- through a sea of complaints. Meanwhile, the government has some large and sophisticated policy reviews underway on a variety of prickly issues that should come to fruition this year. Indeed, a new government's second year is its primary test, after a first year that usually is unsteady.

Intractable problems and controversial decisions will not disappear. But the NDP is gradually getting its own act together and as of now, at least, we welcome some energetic new blood into Nova Scotia politics, but there is no alternative government-in-waiting and a long way to go before there is one.

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