Looking for stable governance from Nova Scotia's NDP

Let's pick up the story from the roots. The NDP was elected four years ago -- a remarkable, even desperate event in a province viewed as traditional and resistant to change -- to put an end to some 30 years of mostly out-of-control and sometimes corrupt government under Liberals and Conservatives.

What we were and are looking for, then, is proper and stable governance. This requires that the NDP both get it right, and get a second majority term. Instead, as of now, the NDP has got it only half-right and the prospects, according to the polls, are for minority government (of whatever party) and a return to political mayhem.

So what's right and what's wrong about the NDP, and what can it fix in the short time that remains?

The NDP, all things considered, has made notable gains in health care. Its collaborative emergency centre concept has been picked up elsewhere, and some other initiatives positively noted nationally. Meanwhile, the auditor general recently declared himself "90 per cent satisfied" that the MLA expenses problem had been fixed. And the highways five-year plan has finally wrung the antique politics out of road-building, complaints by the private sector over the government-owned mobile asphalt plant notwithstanding.

Indeed, the occasional dust-up notwithstanding, public administration seems to me to have improved generally, with a number of initiatives not only in health but in justice, social affairs and others. There have been no scandals involving conflicts of interest, political influence and other offences for which Nova Scotia politics was once famous -- surely a big plus.

What has gone wrong and dropped the NDP's poll numbers, alas, are the big files that relate to the premier himself, in which he is seen as jumping too fast, without due process or arm's-length considerations, into the arms of big corporations. The Maritime Link power project, the drive for open-pen salmon farms, the IBM deal and so on have rattled public confidence. What are we being committed to next, without explanation, and at what cost? That seems to be the gnawing question.

This is not just a rough personal style on the premier's part. The NDP, on coming to power, sought to emulate the successful NDP regimes in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Part of the lesson learned was that when those governments came to power, the hard left that had helped them gain power agitated for the more radical -- and often costly -- solutions that had inspired their origins. The idea being that although the NDP was a grassroots party, once it's in power consulting with the grassroots meant endless disputes, trouble and runarounds so that nothing got done. Getting things done meant trusting one's judgment, cutting off the lefties and damning the torpedoes.

Premier Dexter has gone overboard with this. So much so that Stephen McNeil and the Liberal party have gained traction by attacking him from the left -- hitting the "giveaways" to big corporations, the fat bonuses to bigwigs from Emera, Nova Scotia Power's spinoff, as power rates rise for the rest of us, and so on. McNeil is also the only provincial politician I've seen attacking the federal government's EI changes. It would be more than ironic if the NDP lost the next election because it was outflanked from the left.

Meanwhile, some things that were broken have been fixed. The mayor of Yarmouth said this week she had confidence in the process to find a new Yarmouth-U.S. ferry, after the NDP incurred the wrath of the area for the thoughtless way it dropped the old one. If the NDP had done this right to begin with, and also fixed the still-outstanding debt owed to small contractors after the provincially mandated South West Shore Development Authority went under, it might have had a crack at Yarmouth, which elected a New Democrat in 1998. As it is, it will lose a seat in the west. The too-precipitous extinction of the minority ridings -- another impatient move by the premier -- has rebounded with the disappearance of Fisheries Minister Sterling Belliveau's Shelburne riding.

What has been repaired with regard to the ferry is the process -- the type of fix needed for other things, including the Maritime Link and fish farms. Is there time? To repeat: The important thing for Nova Scotia is that our practices of governance stabilize.

The Liberals have clicked in where the NDP has left a vacuum with some good talking points, but the latest poll showing them ahead also reveals the public's justified skepticism about their preparedness. If the NDP is an experiment in how we are governed, it's too soon to end the experiment and bring back the old authors of our misfortune. But the NDP will have to make a run at regaining public confidence in those areas where it has abused it. A balanced budget -- if that's truly what is coming -- will be huge, but will still leave some sore points.

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

Photo: Matt Jiggins/Flickr

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