Analysis

Graham Steele: Sobering messages for all 3 parties in byelections

Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil has every right to be happy about Tuesday’s byelection results.

NDP victory in Tuesday's Dartmouth South byelection will rattle Liberals, says Graham Steele

By losing Dartmouth South, the real political victory has eluded Stephen McNeil (far right), says Graham Steele. (CBC)

Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil has every right to be happy about Tuesday's byelection results.

On the simplest level, his Liberals emerged with one more seat than they had going in.

Not a bad achievement for a government closing in on its second birthday.

At an equivalent point in their mandates, John Hamm's Progressive Conservatives in 2001 and Darrell Dexter's NDP in 2011 were already bleeding support. Hamm was headed for a minority government in 2003, and Dexter — well, you know where he was headed.

Under McNeil's surface smile, though, is a nagging worry.

By losing Dartmouth South, the real political victory has eluded him. He needed to quell the nervous nellies in his caucus. The result in Dartmouth South will only encourage them in their nervousness.

Nervous nellies

Make no mistake: The film tax credit controversy rattled the Liberals.

Maybe it was good policy, or maybe it wasn't — but it was terrible politics, and badly handled to boot.

The Liberals smashed the film industry's dishes, then scrambled to glue something back together that might pass for a plate. The vacuity at the heart of the Liberal program, which is normally well hidden, was suddenly in plain view.

The nervous nellies in the Liberal caucus started running around, unsure what to do, doubting the premier and the finance minister and their advisors. They had constituents yelling at them. They were creating voters who would crawl over broken glass to defeat them.

For the first time, they had reason to doubt what they were being told by their leadership.

Sure, they'd been yelled at before, mostly about forced re-organization of health-care unions. Getting a police escort out of the legislature, twice, is a sobering experience for anyone who got into politics dreaming only of dancing with seniors and kissing of babies.

The difference was that re-shaping public-sector labour relations needed to be done. It was the signature accomplishment of the McNeil government's first year in office.

The film tax credit was different. It was a silly, needless mess.

Washed out on the tide

The Liberal caucus all voted for the budget — of course they did — but some of them were nervous.

The result in Dartmouth South will keep them nervous.

The Cape Breton seats were different. The Liberals would have taken them easily in 2013, except for residual loyalty to Frank Corbett and Gordie Gosse.

With those two long-time NDP warriors gone, and the same Liberal candidates running in the by-elections, voters in Cape Breton Centre and Sydney–Whitney Pier were basically saying to Dave Wilton and Derek Mombourquette, "Sorry about that. It's your turn now."

In Dartmouth South, the dynamics were different. With the untimely death of Allan Rowe, both the Liberals and NDP had new candidates. All that was in play was a reaction to two years of Liberal government.

In 2013, the Liberals won Dartmouth South by 1131 votes. That margin was (aided by a very low turnout) erased on Tuesday by NDP victor Marian Mancini. I thought Tim Rissesco was going to squeak out a victory for the Liberals, simply because voters aren't as angry at the Liberals as the activists think. But it was Mancini's night to do the squeaking.

That result will worry every Liberal MLA in the Halifax Regional Municipality, if not beyond. Most of them won in 2013 on a Liberal tide. Now they know that what comes in on the tide can be washed out on the tide.

No joy in Toryville

There is no joy in Toryville. The Progressive Conservatives have struck out again.

Nobody seriously expected the PCs to pick up a seat, and they didn't. They'll claim solace in the vote percentages, but moral victories are for losers. They're all that's left when you have three third-place finishes.

Jamie Baillie will survive to fight the next general election, but the clouds around him just got a tiny bit heavier.

As for the NDP, there's a little bit of sunshine. Marian Mancini (full disclosure: she's a friend) will be a fine MLA, and a charge of electricity in a tired caucus. But let's not overstate the case: the NDP caucus has gone from seven to five to six. It's a long way from government.

But the NDP will take any glimmer they can get. On the gloomier side, they've been shut out of Cape Breton for the first time since 1997.

There were, indeed, sobering messages for all three parties in Tuesday's results.

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.