CANADA

Fit to be tied

The Nova Scotia election ends in a dead heat

BRIAN BERGMAN April 6 1998
CANADA

Fit to be tied

The Nova Scotia election ends in a dead heat

BRIAN BERGMAN April 6 1998

Fit to be tied

CANADA

The Nova Scotia election ends in a dead heat

BRIAN BERGMAN

After watching his Liberal government come within a whisker of being defeated in last week’s provincial election, Nova Scotia Premier Russell MacLellan struggled to put his feelings into words. Drawing upon that most Canadian of analogies&x2014;hockey—MacLellan told reporters that the seven months since he became Liberal leader had “seemed like sudden death overtime.” He added that the startling election results—which saw the Liberals and the insurgent NDP tied at 19 seats apiece, with the Conservatives taking the remaining 14—meant “we’re going into the second period of overtime.” What MacLellan left unsaid was that the Liberals, who entered the 40-day campaign with a 39-seat majority government and a commanding lead in the polls, had effectively been sent to the penalty box by the voters—and that it will take some fancy stickhandling on his part just to get back in the game.

According to Canadian political convention, MacLellan’s Liberals are allowed first crack at putting together a minority government. That effort, though, is fraught with potential pitfalls. The premier announced that he will recall the legislature by early May. From that point on, the Liberals could fall as the result of a nonconfidence motion triggered by a throne speech, a budget or any other policy matter that the opposition parties decide warrants bringing

down the government. In that event, either the NDP would be asked to form a government or the legislature would be dissolved, sending the politicians back to the hustings. For MacLellan, 58, one saving grace is that neither NDP Leader Robert Chisholm nor

Conservative Leader John Hamm is eager to incur voter wrath by forcing an early election. As Halifax’s Saint Mary’s University political scientist Leonard Preyra puts it: “I don’t think anyone wants to face the electorate again in this mood.”

Certainly the election results showed that Nova Scotia voters are feeling feisty these days. In a province that has known only Liberal or Conservative majority governments, the NDP’s dramatic gains—the party jumped from four to 19 seats and received „ more than one-third of the popular vote, 34.7 £ per cent, compared to 35.3 per cent for the I Liberals and 29.7 per cent for the Tories— i represented an astonishing break with tra| dition. The outcome was even more remarkI able because MacLellan, with his folksy I leadership style, had successfully distanced I himself from the unpopular deficit-slashing policies of his Liberal predecessor, John Savage. In fact, MacLellan entered the election campaign on Feb. 12 destined, it seemed, to win another majority mandate.

So where did it all go so wrong? For one thing, the folksy populist suddenly became the invisible man. For much of the campaign, MacLellan’s advisers kept him under wraps, apparently hoping to coast to victory on the strength of their polling numbers. While the opposition parties released detailed policy platforms and hammered the government over health-care and education cuts, MacLellan responded with platitudes about how the province was on the cusp of a new era of prosperity thanks to Liberal fiscal prudence. At one point, John Young, a former president of the Liberal party, publicly allowed that the Liberal strategy was “not to have a campaign”—a remark that soon found a prominent place in Conservative party newspaper ads. “The Liberals went into the campaign thinking that simplistic slogans and vague assurances would get them through,” notes Preyra. “But it was really seen as arrogance and evidence of the hollowness of their platform.”

The most devastating blow came during the campaign’s only leadership debate when Hamm, a 59-year-old family physician, twice I asked MacLellan whether he would resign if I he failed to deliver on his promise to bring in S a balanced budget after the election. Both 1 times, the premier stood stone-faced before § the television cameras and refused to an« swer. His opponents could not believe their gj good fortune. As a senior Tory strategist 3 told Maclean’s last week, Hamm and his advisers had considered prior to the debate how MacLellan might respond. Perhaps, they thought, he would promise to resign. Alternatively, he might dismiss the question as grandstanding. “But we never thought for a minute that he would just say nothing,” chuckled the strategist.

The premier’s silence proved especially

deafening because the Liberals had declined to table a budget before calling the election, leading many observers to conclude they had something to hide. And while MacLellan’s debate gaffe gave both opposition parties an unexpected boost, it was the NDP— which had already established a beachhead in last June’s federal election by winning six of the province’s 11 seats—that posed the most serious threat. In the campaign’s final days, the Liberals went on an advertising blitz, decrying how NDP governments in Ontario and British Columbia had bankrupted those provinces. The New Democrats responded with ads of their own, describing how Roy Romanow’s Saskatchewan NDP had balanced the budget and cut taxes.

The late Liberal offensive was clearly designed to scare away first-time NDP voters and to encourage Tories in certain ridings to strategically support the Liberals. The plan appeared to fail on both scores. ‘T think it backfired,” says Rollie Thompson, a Dalhousie law professor who canvassed for the NDP in the riding of Halifax Citadel. “It insulted people’s intelligence.” As it turned out, voters in Halifax Citadel, one of the province’s most affluent ridings, elected Peter Deletes, a retired school principal, as their first-ever New Democrat MLA.

The NDP, under Chisholm’s leadership, made similar inroads across the province. A telegenic 40-year-old, Chisholm is a generation younger than his two main rivals. The product of a prominent Conservative family from Kentville, N.S., he broke ranks after getting involved in the union movement, a decision he says still leads to some “lively chats” whenever he returns home. Ideologically, Chisholm is cut from the same pragmatic cloth as Romanow and British Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair. During the campaign, he preached the need for fiscal responsibility, vowing that an NDP government would “not add one cent to the provincial deficit.” In addition to being opposition leader, Chisholm is now very much a premier-in-waiting; he told Maclean’s last week that, given the levels of support the NDP received, they have as much right to govern as the Liberals. Chisholm’s political rivals are meanwhile counting on increased media scrutiny to take some of the sheen off the NDP leader before the next election.

It is MacLellan, though, who faces the biggest hurdles. The first major one will be the budget, which must show his promised surplus while addressing opposition demands for tax relief on the one hand and new spending on the other. Publicly, at least, he remains upbeat. Late last week, MacLellan called reporters into his office to tell them bow pumped he was about what lies ahead. ‘I’m going to have a great time,” he said. There is nothing in life that could possibly ?ive me any more satisfaction than being successful in this.” Perhaps. But as he con:inues to play in sudden death overtime, the Dremier is skating on thin ice. □