|NDP breakthrough? Give it time
Ian Dowbiggin | Sept. 05
The wheels of change grind slowly on PEI. But they do grind, and sooner or later the Island NDP will make a difference on election day. Unfortunately for the NDP, it’s likely to be later rather than sooner.
First the good news for the party faithful. If you look around the country, and ignore Quebec, the NDP is either surviving or showing signs of strength. There are NDP provincial governments in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Until they were kicked out of power in 2001, the NDP governed in British Columbia.
Across the strait, the NDP’s on the rise. Last August the NDP won 31% of the popular vote in the Nova Scotia provincial election. As in Ontario, where the NDP held power as recently as 1994, the Nova Scotia NDP is a legitimate threat at the polls.
Even in New Brunswick, the NDP won almost 10% of the popular vote and got its leader elected last June.
In the expanding cities of Canada, the NDP is gaining impressive strength. Urban Canadians want something done about water quality, property taxes, and crumbling infrastructure. To this point, Ottawa and the provincial governments appear too beholden to rural voters to take decisive action on these problems.
Urban discontent recently propelled the telegenic Torontonian Jack Layton into the federal NDP’s leadership. Layton is as savvy as they come on hot-button municipal issues. Look for him and his party to improve on its modest representation in the House of Commons in 2004.
Here on PEI, the NDP’s growing muscle in Canada’s cities suggests that the provincial party will eventually increase its vote count in Charlottetown and maybe win a seat or two. As time goes on, and metropolitan Charlottetown gets bigger, its issues will become those of the country’s other cities.
Now for the hard part. Traditionally, Island voters either cast their ballot for the Tories or Liberals. For the NDP to break this pattern it can’t rely on current national trends. It has to be pro-active. It has to exploit the simmering anger of PEI voters. It has to kindle the mounting dissatisfaction over rising taxes, the high cost of living, and the state of the health-care system.
But all signs are it won’t this election. Stuck at 5% in the polls, and desperately short of cash, the NDP appears to have been caught flat-footed by the election call. It was still scrambling at the end of the first week of campaigning to field a full slate of candidates.
The candidates it does have won’t turn any heads either. The NDP is the no-name political party in this election. Instead, it has to attract well-respected candidates like former leader Dr. Herb Dickieson before it can hope to win any ridings. It’s a classic chicken-and-egg situation: the party needs high-profile candidates to win seats, but it can’t attract them until it wins some seats first.
There’s hope for the future, though. If proportional representation becomes a reality, the NDP will benefit. Getting into the provincial legislature will be the proverbial foot in the door. Once in, so the party realistically believes, it can convince voters that casting a ballot for the NDP isn’t a wasted vote.
And don’t forget: the NDP’s share of the popular vote on PEI has inched up over the last two elections. Conceivably, this time out it could match New Brunswick’s NDP by winning the support of about 10% of voters.
Let’s be polite and call the provincial NDP moribund. At the same time, don’t mistake its current state for its permanent condition. My counter-intuitive prediction is that the Island NDP will rise some day. Just not this election year.
Ian Dowbiggin is professor of history at the University of Prince Edward Island. Author of four books, including the 1999 Canadian best-seller Suspicious Minds: The Triumph of Paranoia in Everyday Life, he's well-known to Maritime audiences as a controversial radio and television commentator on today's hot-button issues.