Nova Scotia·Opinion

Graham Steele: Why Stephen McNeil's Liberals didn't come out winners

This week, another sitting of the Nova Scotia legislature ended. The Liberal government of Stephen McNeil should have come out as winners but did not, writes political analyst Graham Steele.

Government must bring hubris under control, writes political analyst

Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil and his Liberal government should have come out as winners after the spring sitting of the legislature, writes political analyst Graham Steele. (CBC)

This week, another sitting of the Nova Scotia legislature ended. The Liberal government of Stephen McNeil should have come out as winners, but did not.

Like most spring sittings, the focus was on the budget. Before it was introduced, I wrote that this budget would define what the McNeil government was all about. They've been learning government for a year and a half. No more studies or excuses — rehearsals are over.

Despite the sound and fury of the last few weeks, the budget was a creditable effort: very modest tax increases, modest overall spending increases achieved with minimal individual cuts and a modest deficit. There are some questions and risks, for sure, but nothing extraordinary.

That was my assessment on budget day and I stand by it.

Most importantly, there was nothing in the budget to upset fishermen on the wharf, or retirees at the coffee shop, or volunteers at the fire hall. It should have been an easy sell.

So why, then, was the spring sitting so painful for the McNeil government?

Political fiasco

The elimination of the film tax credit was a political fiasco from beginning to end. On budget day I called it a calamitous mistake. I stand by that, too, and it's not because the film tax credit is sacrosanct.

Film is a fragile industry that must be handled with care. Instead, the premier and his finance minister charged into an industry they clearly didn't understand, wrecked it, then tried to half-fix it. They left only confusion and disarray in their wake.

Recently I heard an experienced former politician talk about "broken glass" voters. They're the voters who are so angry that they will walk across broken glass to vote against you.

With the film fiasco, the Liberals have created 1,000 new broken-glass voters. They won't go away. They — and their families and friends — will pop up for years when a Liberal MLA least expects it. Liberals MLAs will wish they'd never heard of the film tax credit.

But that isn't even the worst of it, politically. McNeil has handed the opposition parties a perpetual political gift. He promised in the 2013 election to extend the film tax credit to 2020. He broke that promise.

Now, the reliability of every Liberal promise can and will be questioned.

Examples of hubris

The McNeil government is heading generally in the right direction, but the film fiasco illustrates its fatal flaw: a marked tendency to overplay its hand. In Greek tragedy, it's called hubris.

We first saw this hubris last year. The signature initiative of the McNeil government in its first year was reshaping public-sector collective bargaining. They moved boldly — and good for them.

But then they went too far. It wasn't enough to reshape bargaining; they wanted to destroy their union nemesis too. They tried, none too subtly, to strip thousands of members from the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union.

So, what should have been a triumph fell messily apart.

We saw the same hubris on the film tax credit. The McNeil government was right to address it, but wrong in how they went about it. In an otherwise creditable $10.5-billion budget, they would not admit having made a mistake even on 0.1 per cent of the total.

'Maybe they'll take the layup instead of the dunk'

We saw the same hubris on other issues too. When an annual grant was cut from the venerable Canadian National Institute for the Blind, Community Services Minister Joanne Bernard should have simply murmured regret.

Instead, she lectured the CNIB, saying it didn't really need the money and could turn to its own national endowments. The CNIB was flabbergasted, protesting that the endowments didn't work that way.

A small misfortune became a messy public spat.

This is the fatal flaw — the McNeil government is not content just to get its own way, which a majority government always does. They want to slam dunk the ball, swing on the rim, stare the defending players in the face and trash talk them on the way back down the court.

That's where the political trouble comes from, not the choices themselves.

Over the next year, maybe the McNeil government will learn from experience and bring its hubris under control. Maybe they'll take the layup instead of the dunk.

Otherwise, the Liberals can look forward to meeting more broken glass voters in the next election.


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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