Nova Scotia·Opinion

Graham Steele: Independent takes on party politics

In Nova Scotia today, party politics rule.

Nova Scotia desperately needs politicians who are willing to break the mould

Charlene Gagnon is the only independent candidate in the three byelections currently underway in Nova Scotia—in Cape Breton Centre, Dartmouth South, and Sydney-Whitney Pier. (CBC)

In Nova Scotia today, party politics rule.

Spouting the party line means you don't have to think.

Voting the party line means you take no risks.

That doesn't mean our politicians are fools. Some of the best, smartest people I know are politicians.

What it means is that our politicians have bought into a political culture in which all governance, debate, and thinking are driven behind closed doors. That's where all the real decisions are made, and it hasn't served us well.

The Ivany Report starts with a call for a new kind of politics. Our traditional politicians have, of course, brushed that game-changing recommendation aside as if it had never been said.

Nova Scotia desperately needs politicians who are willing to break the mould.

I'm not suggesting, by the way, that we should turn our backs on political parties. An MLA or MP can exercise independence of mind inside or outside a political party.

The ones who are inside mostly choose not to, that's all.

Enter Charlene Gagnon.

Obedience training

Charlene is the only independent candidate in the three byelections currently underway in Nova Scotia, in Cape Breton Centre, Dartmouth South and Sydney-Whitney Pier.

The three big parties have a candidate in each constituency. The Green Party, for unconvincing reasons, is fielding no candidates.

And then, in Dartmouth South, there's Charlene Gagnon.

It's not too hard to become a candidate. You pay your registration fee, you agree to abide by the rules (which are increasingly complicated), and you're in.

When you're in a party, though, there are people to look after all the details for you. Not only that, but you have people to run your campaign, design your signs and leaflets, call voters and knock on doors, build a social media presence, and handle the money.

You also have people to tell you what to do. The party office probably decides who your campaign manager will be.

They tell you what your position is on any issues the voters raise. They write the content for your leaflets and your Facebook page. Everything is upbeat and polished.

In other words: politics as usual. The obedience training starts early.

Credible campaign

Charlene Gagnon didn't have these advantages. And you know what? She's running a credible campaign.

Most independents don't run any kind of campaign. They do just enough to get on the ballot, and then they disappear.

Apparently that's not Charlene's style.

She's got a decent number of signs, which are endearingly hand-made. She's knocking on doors. She's writing an interesting blog.

Her statements and positions are as sensible as any other candidate's.

It is formidably difficult to be elected as an independent in Nova Scotia, and I suspect Charlene knows that.

The last independents elected were Billy Joe Maclean and Paul MacEwan, in 1987 and 1988 respectively, but they had already been elected under a party banner and were extremely well-known in their communities.

Bill Casey pulled it off federally in 2008, but again, he'd been elected several times under a party flag.

The last "true" independent elected in Nova Scotia—an MLA elected for the first time with no party affiliation—was one Ebenezer Tilton Moseley, elected in Cape Breton County in 1874.

And even he joined a party caucus within a year, and switched parties the year after that.

So the odds are not in Charlene Gagnon's favour.

Three reasons

But still, it's for the voters to decide what the significance of her candidacy is.

If you're in Dartmouth South, there are at least three reasons why you might vote Independent.

  • You know Charlene, or you've read her stuff, and you think she sounds like your kind of MLA.
  • You support the Ivany Commission's call for a new kind of politics, and you believe a new kind of politics requires a new kind of politician.
  • You're inclined to vote "none of the above" to the traditional parties, but since that doesn't appear on the ballot, you might not vote at all.

Byelections don't have a lot of big-picture significance. When they're over, we'll have the same government, with the same premier, pursuing the same policies.

But one of the more interesting footnotes next Tuesday will be how many voters mark their ballot for Charlene Gagnon, the first post-Ivany independent.

About the Author

Graham Steele

Political analyst

Graham Steele is a former MLA who was elected four times as a New Democrat for the constituency of Halifax Fairview. He also served as finance minister. Steele is now a political analyst for CBC News.

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