Time to exorcise all the old devils.
by Don Cayo


Which is better, the devil you know or the devil you don’t?

Well, it may depend on how bad the old devil is. Or how scary the new one.

So, with what’s come to be seen as bumbling old beelzebubs in charge of the two largest Maritime Provinces for the past many months, this is turning into the new devils’ year down here.

First it was Bernard Lord, the 33-year-old rookie Tory leader who was elected earlier this month as premier of New Brunswick. The PC party in the province had been all but moribund ever since 1987 when Richard Hatfield lost it and Frank McKenna’s Liberals swept every seat. But they stormed back from the wilderness to win 44 seats from Mr. McKenna’s hapless successor, Camille Theriault.

And now, next door in Nova Scotia it looks like Liberal incumbent Russell MacLellan and gang will be displaced. The trouble is, it’s anything but clear who will replace them.

The last Nova Scotia election, held just a year ago, ended with a Liberal-NDP tie at 19 seats each, with the Tories at 14. Mr. MacLellan has governed – after a fashion – only with the support of his old school chum, PC leader John Hamm.

But the cost of Mr. MacLellan’s spending habit became too much for even the indecisive and gentlemanly Dr. Hamm. He teamed up last week with the NDP, who’ve stood alone against Liberal flip-flops and flimflam, to defeat the government on a budget bill that pretended to balance the books while racking up massive new debt.

So it’s election time again. And it’s a tough one to call.

This is the first time in Atlantic Canada that NDP lead the polls going into a vote. But, as Mr. Lord’s unexpected win in New Brunswick proved earlier this month, campaigns can matter. Every analyst and every poll agreed when the vote was called that he looked like a loser. Nobody even guessed he’d win – let alone win big – until just a few days before the vote was cast.

A Nova Scotia campaign has every bit as much potential to change people’s minds. Voter loyalty down here these days is best measured in millimetres.

It’s possible in a volatile campaign, of course, that the governing Grits will regain office. But that would surprise me. Mr. MacLellan has spent his time darting all over the political map, building schools, propping up dying industries, throwing money at the collapsing health care system. Yet he has managed to please almost no one. He usually just looks weak and desperate – not to mention sly for the way he slid millions and millions of dollars in spending off the books in order to maintain his pretext of a balanced budget. He was a veteran of politics but a rookie leader when he took office, but I think voters will say he’s had his turn and now it’s time to give another rookie a chance.

It might be Dr. Hamm if he can overcome his wishy-washy image during the campaign.

But at this point, with the real electioneering just beginning, it looks more like NDP leader Robert Chisholm. He has managed in opposition to remain constant to the principles he voiced during the campaign. But those principles – to be both socially and fiscally responsible – are sufficiently vague, and he and his party are sufficiently untested, that no one knows how they’ll translate into action.

And there’s a question of whether Nova Scotians, a long-time small-c conservative lot, are ready to take a chance on the left. In last year’s election, Halifax-area Tories deserted their party in droves to vote Liberal and stave off what they saw – rightly, as things turned out – as a real chance that the NDP would form its first-ever government in Atlantic Canada. This time it’s possible, though by no means certain, that Liberals will jump from their sinking ship to the Tories in order to do the same.

Finally, there’s a real prospect of another minority government, and that could prove even more of a circus than the one just defeated. If, for example, the NDP wins a plurality of seats but falls short of a majority, it’s hard to imagine either the Tories or the Liberals propping them up the way Dr. Hamm supported, until the budget vote, Mr. MacLellan.

With both Premier Gary Filmon and Premier Roy Romanow pussy-footing towards election dates of their own, tea-leaf readers in the Prairie provinces are no doubt keen to examine the entrails down here – as well as in Ontario where Mike Harris and his hard-line Tories were just re-elected. They’ll be looking for lessons and/or portents of what’s to come in your part of the country.

I have no idea what lesson to draw from Ontario. But what I hear Atlantic voters saying is that they’re not hung up on ideology or party labels or even – I hate to say it – policy. They’re assessing integrity and credibility. And when they see a party or a leader who clearly doesn’t have it, they’re willing to take a chance on one who might.

Don Cayo is just completing a two-year term as president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies in Halifax. He is returning to his job as editorial page editor of The Telegraph Journal in Saint John, N.B.