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What Does the NDP's Defeat in Nova Scotia Mean?

10/14/2013 10:53 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

I was among those who thought the election of an NDP government in Nova Scotia in 2009 was a good thing. It showed a dynamic political system, where voters are not confined to only two parties, but rather can throw out the older parties -- Liberal and Tory -- and try something completely new.

By contrast, a distinct disadvantage in the United States is the dominance of two monolithic parties. Often Democrats feel free to move to the centre, even to the right, lacking any serious pressure on their left flank. This move to the right has been made easier in recent years with the Republicans moving to the far right -- driven by Tea Party ideology -- making the choice between the party of sanity and the party of extremes.

An American-style two party system can lead to stifled political choice, something which makes Canada's comparatively more fluid party system all the more appealing. Our next federal election holds the potential to be a genuine three-party race -- with the NDP, Liberals, and Conservatives as viable contenders for 24 Sussex Drive -- something that will give voters more choice and hopefully bring more ideas to the debate.

The province of Ontario, in large part, is a genuinely three-party spectrum. Here in New Brunswick, a recent CRA poll showing the NDP edging out the governing Tories for second place -- albeit in a statistical tie -- points to the potential that the 2014 provincial election will not be solely a Liberal-Tory battle.

So, back to Nova Scotia, what went wrong for the NDP? In the aftermath of their stunning 2009 win, their popularity dramatically slipped. The NDP became the first government in Nova Scotia, in 131 years, to not win a second term, being relegated to third place in the Nova Scotia Legislature, with Nova Scotia politics potentially returning to the Liberal versus Tory situation that existed before the NDP's initial 1998 breakthrough which saw them become real contenders for power.

As a person NDP leader and Nova Scotia premier Darrell Dexter seemed a genuinely likeable person, and someone who was intelligent and thoughtful in interviews and televised roundtable discussions.

There were good policies which came out of the NDP government in Nova Scotia, including promotion of local foods, an important step in supporting local farmers in the province. As well, the Nova Scotia NDP government saw a dramatic increase in lands protected for conservation. Where Nova Scotia once lagged, it became a leader with a goal of 14 per cent protected lands, well ahead of other Atlantic provinces.

However, the NDP governed during the worse economic downturn since the Great Depression, something that often brings negative pressures on a governing party. The desire for fiscal responsibility made it harder for the NDP to govern as social democrats -- to establish new social programs or commit to new spending. While in Saskatchewan and Manitoba NDP governments have successfully struck the balance between fiscal conservatism and social spending, this balance seemed harder to achieve in Nova Scotia.

The Nova Scotia NDP government also broke campaign promises, it increased the HST when emphatically promising not to in 2009. As well, the NDP failed to achieve its goal of its first budget being a balanced one (even though the NDP ultimately did achieve this goal later in its mandate).

The Nova Scotia NDP also faced accusations of corporate welfare, of handing out excessive amounts of money to corporate and business entities.

These accusations -- of broken campaign promises, of corporate welfare -- sting especially hard for the NDP which, in Nova Scotia and elsewhere, seeks to present itself as a more principled alternative to the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives. In the end, the NDP ended up looking in government very much like what they previously criticized.

On the Liberal win in Nova Scotia, blogger Calgary Grit rightly noted that rumours of the death of the Liberal Party had been greatly exaggerated. While cautioning that each province has its own unique local dynamics, the blogger noted that signs are positive for the Liberals. Liberal leader Stephen McNeil's win was big in Nova Scotia. Liberals are leading in New Brunswick as well as in Newfoundland and federally the Liberal Party has enjoyed a revival from Trudeaumania Part Two. As well, even though not affiliated to the federal party, Christy Clark's win in British Columbia and strong poll showings for provincial Liberals in Quebec are also positive signs.

While it seems the Orange Crush is receding, with the NDP having lost an election it expected to win in British Columbia, having been resoundingly defeated in Nova Scotia, and placing third federally in polls, it would be a mistake to write them off. Federally -- for example -- it is still almost two years to the next federal election, and federal NDP leader Thomas Mulcair is a formidable debater and experienced campaigner.

Nonetheless, the Nova Scotia election results point to the challenges of a party moving from protest to power -- something noted by Bob Rae in his autobiography recounting his time as Ontario's NDP premier. It pointed to the challenges of dealing with the pressures of governing, of trying to hold up to the ideals preached in opposition, to avoid the sins they accuse others of.

Dexter did not seem to be a terrible premier -- there were positive initiatives from his tenure -- but many Nova Scotians felt let down by the NDP government, a message they resoundingly sent on election day.