The crowd chanted "Robert, Robert" as the NDP's Robert Chisholm made his way through a packed church hail in the
gritty Halifax suburb of Spryfield last week. Only moments before, the Nova Scotia New Democrat had been declared the winner in a provincial byelection in the Halifax Atlantic riding, which for 23 years had been a Conservative bastion controlled by former Conservative premier John Buchanan. “What do you think?” shouted the 33-year-old union educator to the appreciative crowd. “Did we send the Liberals and Tories a message?” But Chisholm’s stunning upset did far more than that. The NDP victory robbed Premier Donald Cameron’s Tory government of its one-seat majority in the legislature. And the combined opposition now has the numbers to stop the passage of any legislation when the legislature convenes in November—and to incapacitate or bring down the government.
For Cameron, the outcome in Spryfield was just one more indication of the difficulties he still faces in putting the scandal-ridden Buchanan years behind him. With the RCMP still investigating allegations of widespread corruption within the government of the former premier—Buchanan resigned last September to accept a Senate seat—Cameron has tried to rise above the disastrous legacy by instituting a series of sweeping government reforms since becoming Tory leader in February. But for Halifax Atlantic voters, those efforts apparently have not erased the old image: Chisholm,
who teaches union procedures to members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, took the riding with 4,507 votes, followed by the Liberals’ Randy Ball with 3,941—while Tory candidate Judy Hartlin trailed with 2,819.
That result left the Tories holding just 26 seats in the 52-seat legislature—including that of Speaker Ronald Russell, who is allowed to
vote only in the event of a tie. Arrayed against them now is a 26-member opposition made up of 22 Liberals, three New Democrats and former Tory cabinet minister Roland Thornhill, who resigned from the party in February to sit as an Independent after being charged with 17 counts of fraud, forgery and receiving illegal benefits. To ensure his government’s immediate survival, Cameron has said that he will not introduce any major financial legislation during the fall—the only kind of legislation on which nonconfidence motions can take place.
Still, in order to pass any legislation, Cameron will have to count on opposition absenteeism—or some kind of opposition support. As a result, noted Ian Stewart, a political scientist at Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S., “It is a mug’s game to try to predict whether this government will make it through the next session of the house.” Cameron is unlikely to find support among the Liberals, who tried to bring the government down with a nonconfidence motion during the spring legislative session. The New Democrats, led by energetic former social worker Alexa McDonough, 47, also have their differences with the Tories. But they have said that they will back Cameron’s government as long as it continues along its path of legislative reform. Without NDP support, the Tories would have to woo former cabinet member Thornhill, whose support for his onetime colleagues is far from certain.
But Cameron, needing time to rebuild party support, will likely try to wait until the spring before calling an election. In a public opinion poll released last week, 41 per cent of decided voters supported the Liberals, compared with 27 per cent for the NDP and only 24 per cent for the once-mighty Tories. And the opposition is now in a stronger position to determine how much time Cameron may have.
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