Report card on Darrell Dexter's NDP government

So where are we at with the NDP government, a year or less from the next election?

The upbeat news first. You may not have even noticed, but health and the deficit -- those perennial torments -- are becalmed as political issues, thanks to some deft work by ministers Maureen MacDonald and Graham Steele.

True, we're far from the Promised Land on either one, but public carping on those issues is the lowest, and the sense of things being on course is the best, I've seen in 30 years.

Just before MacDonald left Health for Finance, replacing Steele who resigned from cabinet, she had delivered a mental health plan that drew kudos from across the country; Nova Scotia's Collaborative Emergency Centre concept is being picked up in some other provinces; and generally all the seized-up wheels of the health apparatus, including the issue of too much bureaucracy, seem to be at least moving.

Meanwhile, Steele's pre-budget public consultations across the province is one of the most adroit exercises in reducing an over-politicized squawkfest to rational debate than I think I've ever seen, broken promise on the HST or not. Bureaucracy is always opaque and you never know for sure, but I'm noting initiatives in various spheres -- highways, agriculture, justice, etc. -- that indicate to me that this is indeed the able administration we lacked for so long.

Meanwhile, we'll see how it turns on educational reform. Dismantling built empires is one of the most thankless of tasks, but the NDP deserves credit for tackling it head on.

So what's the catch? As it turns out, I was prepared to say all this a couple of months ago, and even to add that with a divided opposition, the NDP seemed situated to stay in office a long time. Then I got knocked off my horse, first by the salmon farm uproar, then the electoral boundaries uproar, plus other things I was hearing about what seems to be the problem: Premier Darrell Dexter's straight-arm way of operating.

Regardless of the merits of the argument on both salmon farms and electoral boundaries, plus some other cases, these are political blowups that speak of flawed process, of courses set before the hazards are known and an unwillingness to adjust that course. All this includes a deaf ear, even a hostility, to voices within the party that might be useful but have been shut out.

The Yarmouth ferry debacle, again regardless of the merits of the argument, might have been put off as a rookie mistake. Indeed, the premier admitted that it was badly handled. But it seems to keep happening. Now we might find ourselves committed to the high-risk, low-return Muskrat Falls power development in Newfoundland and Labrador without any of the serious questions being answered.

This lack of Steele-like political finesse is odd. Dexter had a fine hand in one of the signal events of recent Canadian politics. The NDP gained the credibility that put it over the top by co-operating with the Hamm government during its minority, as the public was fed up with politicians always squabbling. The federal NDP were watching this closely. Jack Layton did the same during the Harper minority, vowing to do the right thing rather than angle for short-term advantage. As far as I know, he got the idea from Dexter, and the rest is history.

But now, on the troubled issues, government seems to be by command from headquarters. Some are suggesting that power has gone to Dexter's head. The premier's intentions are honourable, of course. He's concerned about job creation, the aging population and rural depopulation. I'm sure he'd love to land a big one for Yarmouth and dispel the local belief that he's actually hostile to the place. But this intention was also that of pretty well every premier in the modern era, from Robert Stanfield on, and we should know by now that obsessing too much about jobs of any kind and at any cost doesn't always bring the desired result.

The upshot of all this is that, with a year to go, the Dexter government will have to do some re-thinking. A recent poll showed the NDP down and the others up, with the Liberals close. Another poll showed Dexter the least popular premier in Canada -- something I first thought of merely as one of the hazards of being premier of this difficult province, but now I'm not sure about that either.

One of the first things it might want to do is kick forward the decision on electoral boundaries -- some 2,500 people at the Yarmouth arena protesting, in a place I've never known to protest anything, gives a signal beyond the immediate issue. Then it should loosen up on other trouble spots -- the Muskrat Falls project, biomass, open-pen salmon farming, drilling near Lake Ainslie, the convention centre -- and, if it's not too late, heal its internal divisions.

Ralph Surette is a veteran freelance journalist living in Yarmouth County. This article was first published in the Chronicle Herald.

Photo: BC Gov Photos/Flickr

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