Nova Scotia·Analysis

Will team Trudeau fall flat in Atlantic Canada?

The last time a federal Liberal government went into an election holding every seat in Nova Scotia it didn't turn out so good ⁠— at least not for them.

Liberals entering election holding all 32 seats in the region

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is shown with three Nova Scotia MPs, including West Nova MP Colin Fraser (left), Halifax MP Andy Fillmore and South Shore-St. Margaret's MP Bernadette Jordan. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

The last time a federal Liberal government went into an election holding every seat in Nova Scotia, it didn't turn out so good ⁠— at least not for them.

In a stinging rebuke, all 11 Liberals were defeated in 1997.

Mary Clancy was one of them.

"When the writ was dropped in '97, I knew I was dead in the water," recalls Clancy, a two-term Liberal MP who represented Halifax.

Her share of the vote plunged from 45 per cent in the sweep year of 1993 to 21 per cent in 1997, when the Grits were wiped out in Nova Scotia.

Mary Clancy won the Halifax seat for the Liberal party in 1988 and again in 1993, but was defeated in the 1997 election. (CBC)

On election night, she took some comfort from an uncle.

"He looked at me and he said, 'Well you can't take this personally, as the whole province went down to defeat.'"

Could it happen again to team Trudeau?

Gravity calls

Twenty-two years later, there are some very important differences in the political landscape and one brutal similarity: there's nowhere to go but down.

And not just in Nova Scotia.

The Liberals enter the election holding all 32 seats in Atlantic Canada.

They've rebounded in public opinion polls from earlier this year, but a seat projection model used by Halifax-based Narrative Research suggests Liberals could lose as many as 40 per cent of their seats in Atlantic Canada in 2019, mostly in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.

"I would certainly say that it looks as though the Liberals could continue to hold the majority of the seats in the region, but certainly not all of them as they did in the past," said Narrative Research CEO Margaret Brigley.

Incumbent MPs defeated

The Liberals also had a huge lead into the 1997 election, having won 31 of 32 Atlantic seats in the 1993 election under the leadership of Jean Chretien.

Four years later, they fell flat everywhere in the region except P.E.I., where they held onto all four seats.

The Liberals lost three of the seven ridings in Newfoundland and Labrador, and six of the nine seats they held in New Brunswick, where the NDP won two seats for the first time ever.

Elsie Wayne, the lone Progressive Conservative survivor from the 1993 election, was joined by four other Tories.

But it was worse in Nova Scotia, where every Liberal ⁠— 10 of the 11 were incumbents ⁠— was defeated. The red team was replaced by six New Democrats and five Progressive Conservatives.

That election launched the federal careers of New Democrat leader Alexa McDonough and Peter MacKay and Scott Brison, who both went to Ottawa as rookie Progressive Conservative MPs. Brison would later cross the floor to join the Liberals.

Mad at one, mad at all

Clancy and the other bluenose Liberals were the first to feel the wrath of voters spoiling for a chance to punish the deeply unpopular provincial Liberal government of the late premier John Savage, who resigned one month before the federal election call.

"People don't particularly differentiate. If they're mad at the Liberals they are mad at all Liberals. Mad with the Tories, mad at all the Tories," said Clancy.

"Premier Savage, who is a man I absolutely adored and have the greatest of respect for, was not the most beloved premier at the time."

Canada's least popular premier today is Liberal Stephen McNeil of Nova Scotia, according to pollster Angus Reid. In June, it said McNeil had an approval rating of just 16 per cent.

Liberal Premier Stephen McNeil of Nova Scotia is the longest-serving premier in Canada, but polls suggest his popularity is waning. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

"I will go out and do some work for some of the MPs who want me to," said McNeil, who is also the longest-serving premier in Canada, when asked this week if he will help out in the upcoming campaign.

"I haven't been directly asked."

Why 2019 is different

But here is where differences emerge.

Whatever dissatisfaction there is with the McNeil government, the Liberal brand has been holding in Nova Scotia. It's even on an uptick, according to Brigley.

"We certainly don't see the provincial Liberal Party in the same dire straits as was the case back in 1997," said Brigley.

More importantly, Liberals this time are not carrying the dead weight of huge federal spending cuts in the region.

Prime Minister Jean Chretien waves to the crowd from his limousine following Canada Day ceremonies in Ottawa in 1996. (Tom Hanson/Canadian Press)

Changes enacted by the Chretien government in 1996 helped balance the books but made it harder for seasonal workers to qualify for employment insurance.

Anger over EI is largely credited in the defeat of two of the Chretien government's most powerful ministers: Doug Young in New Brunswick and Dave Dingwall in Nova Scotia.

Less baggage

In Nova Scotia, the spending cuts also closed or downsized military bases and reduced federal spending on health care and education.

Health and education are both delivered by the provinces ⁠— a factor in Savage's woes.

One of his cabinet ministers publicly called out the 11 Liberal MPs at the time, accusing them of not protecting Nova Scotia.

"I haven't seen the federal MPs defending these programs," John MacEachern complained at Province House in Halifax.

Clancy denies that charge.

"I was nine years in Parliament and I spent at least part of every day that I was there trying to explain to Ontario ministers and Western ministers why EI was not a welfare program, that if you live in Cumberland County in Nova Scotia or rural Nova Scotia anywhere for three months of the year when you're knee-deep in snow, there's no work," she said.

Brigley said in 2019, the Liberals are not carrying the same baggage.

"The reason for that is really the sense that Justin Trudeau's Liberals, his Liberal team, they haven't enacted a serious policy initiative like EI reform that has angered voters to the same extent," she said.

The exception might be carbon pricing in New Brunswick.

Greens are on the menu

Another difference is the rise of the Green Party, which supplanted the NDP as the third party in the Maritimes, according to Narrative Research polling this summer.

With the New Democrats weakened and the Greens new and untested, Liberals hope cautious voters could stick with them, even if they are not satisfied with Trudeau.

"I would say that the Liberals are not likely to be entirely wiped out in the province [Nova Scotia] this time around, partly because, unlike in 1997, the left of centre voters, they really need somewhere to park their votes," said Brigley.

Even in a wipeout like 1997, the Liberals were not entirely out of it.

In Nova Scotia, they took 28 per cent of the vote, just behind the New Democrats and PC's at 30 per cent, who won all the seats.

A Conservative sweep on the other hand would require breaking through the party's ceiling in the region, which Brigley said has not exceeded 45 per cent federally.

"So the question here would be who does the Conservative party have as leader in place to really change something that has polled Liberal historically," she said.

Ripple effect of Brison resignation

And then there is Scott Brison's resignation, an unforeseen event which has already reverberated inside and outside of Nova Scotia this year.

Trudeau adviser Gerald Butts told a parliamentary committee earlier in the year that Brison's resignation was a complete surprise.

Scott Brison resigned from cabinet in January and stepped down as MP the following month. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

The Prime Minister's Office tried to talk Brison out of quitting, fearing its impact on longtime Nova Scotia Liberal MPs, who were passed over in the cabinet shuffle it triggered. Those fears seem justified.

MPs Rodger Cuzner and Mark Eyking subsequently announced they were quitting.

They joined Brison, rookie Colin Fraser from West Nova and veteran Bill Casey from Cumberland-Colchester as incumbents not reoffering.

"In short, in the span of a few months, we would go from holding all 11 seats in Nova Scotia with strong incumbents to having five of them open in the next election," Butts told the committee.

Butts also claimed Brison's departure led to the decision to move Jody Wilson-Raybould out of the Justice portfolio, where she was resisting efforts to intervene in a prosecution of Quebec engineering firm SNC Lavalin.

Whatever the merits of that claim, the departure of the incumbents in ridings that were traditional strong Conservative strongholds is cause for concern for Liberals in 2019.

Butts specifically identified Brison's Kings-Hants and Cumberland-Colchester, where Casey was first elected as a Progressive Conservative in 1988.

Corrections

  • We initially reported that Bernadette Jordan, the Liberal candidate for South Shore-St. Margarets, was not reoffering in the 2019 election. She is, in fact running in that riding in this election.
    Sep 14, 2019 12:48 PM AT

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