Nova Scotia·Opinion

Graham Steele: Provincial politics entangled in federal campaign

In Nova Scotia, each of the three major parties has been in government in the last ten years, so we can expect to see federal candidates throwing provincial brickbats at their opponents this election, writes CBC political analyst Graham Steele.

CBC political analyst says provincial politics will bleed into federal campaigns throughout this election

Graham Steele says every politician knows that politics at one level bleeds into the other so we can expect to see federal candidates throwing provincial brickbats at their opponents this election. (Canadian Press/Reuters)

The federal election, launched on Sunday, will change the behaviour of our provincial politicians right up to election day on October 19th.

Every politician knows that politics at one level bleeds into the other.

Ask Jamie Baillie, who has to wear dissatisfaction with the Harper government.

Ask Nova Scotia's New Democrat MPs, who have to wear the shortcomings of the Dexter government.

Ask federal Liberal candidates, especially in Halifax, who have to wear anger over the film tax fiasco.

Politicians are acutely aware of the dividing line between municipal, provincial, and federal governments.

Citizens draw no such lines.

For most, it's all "the government." If they have a politician on their doorstep, they're going to tell the politician what's bugging them. They'll leave the jurisdictional nitpicking to someone else.

Parties add to confusion

Besides, the parties themselves don't draw a sharp distinction between federal and provincial wings, so why should citizens?

Despite the technical separation, there is a freeflow of people between the federal and provincial wings of the same party.

Go to a provincial event, and you're likely to see a federal politician speaking.

Go to a federal event, and the audience includes lots of provincial politicians.

Unless your name is Danny Williams, the provincial and federal wings of the same party never criticize each other in public.

In this election, we can expect to see provincial MLAs stumping for their party's federal candidate. They've already been doing it.

Voters with a beef will have no patience for an MLA saying, "Sorry, but today I'm here on behalf of the federal party".

I learned this lesson the hard way during the 2011 federal election. We were in government, and I was knocking on doors in my own constituency with the federal NDP candidate.

One man was right some mad about the Yarmouth ferry. He had me on his doorstep, and that's what he wanted to talk about. And for that reason alone — something that was entirely the doing of the provincial NDP — he wasn't voting for the federal NDP.

Hugging and pushing

None of this is news to the parties. They know most voters don't draw sharp distinctions between federal and provincial parties.

So they double down, and actually try to take advantage of the confusion.

If their provincial cousins are popular, the federal candidates will hug them close.

If their provincial cousins are unpopular, the federal candidates will push them away.  

That dynamic may be different in different regions of the province.

In Nova Scotia, each of the three major parties has been in government in the last ten years. There is no other province where that is true.

So each federal candidate has provincial brickbats they can throw at their opponents. Expect to see lots of it, especially in non-incumbent seats. The facts won't matter. This is politics.

In Ontario, which is much more of an electoral prize than Nova Scotia, the Conservative Party of Canada is definitely lumping together the provincial Liberals and the federal Liberals.

The Conservatives do nothing without market-testing it first, so expect this attack to have traction.

In response, Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne has already made clear that she wants the Harper government out, and will be campaigning with federal Liberal candidates.

No risk of controversy

The biggest impact of the federal campaign on provincial politics will be what is not done.

The McNeil government won't risk doing anything even slightly controversial until the federal ballots are cast and counted.

The Dexter government did the same during the 2011 federal election, and presumably the PC government did the same during the 2006 and 2008 federal elections.

Sometimes this tendency can go too far. I remember in April 2011 wanting to release a discussion paper on auto insurance, but I was told to hold it until the federal election was over in early May. I couldn't see what possible connection it could have, but caution was the word. The paper was held for a few weeks, and released the day after the election.

I expect the McNeil government will be similarly cautious. So expect a pent-up torrent of announcements, studies and freedom of information answers starting on October 20th.

Until then, the forecast from the McNeil government will be all political sunshine.


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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