Nova Scotia·Opinion

4 disadvantages to being Nova Scotia's opposition leaders

Progressive Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie and New Democratic Party Leader Gary Burrill can only watch and wait as Premier Stephen McNeil marshals all of his government's powers to lay the groundwork for an election.

With an election in the air, the PCs and NDP face an uphill challenge against the Liberals, says Graham Steele

Nova Scotia's PC Leader Jamie Baillie and NDP Leader Gary Burrill. (Robert Short/CBC)

It's no fun being an opposition leader.

In our dysfunctional political culture, the opposition is almost entirely excluded from decision-making. It's not good government, but that's just the way it is.

Progressive Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie and New Democratic Party Leader Gary Burrill can only watch and wait as Premier Stephen McNeil marshals all of his government's powers to lay the groundwork for an election.

In the run-up to a campaign, the opposition leaders' job is much tougher than the premier's — except in one important way.

4 disadvantages

The opposition parties face four key disadvantages compared to the government party.

First, the power of incumbency. MLAs are essentially being paid to campaign, and by definition the government has more incumbents.

Second, the power of money. There are strict limits on corporate and union donations, but even so it's easier to raise money for the governing party.

Third, the power of government spending. Lately the largesse has been laid on like marmalade. There have been a couple of funding announcements every day. The opposition parties can't compete.

And finally, the power of timing. The premier knows when the election will be, but the opposition can only guess. And they can waste a lot of money—for example on advertising—if they guess wrong.

Baillie struggling

In an election, the leader is everything. It's a tough lesson for local candidates, but that's just the way it is.

So how are the opposition leaders doing?

For a guy about to hit his seventh anniversary as PC leader, Jamie Baillie is struggling for support. If he's going to win, voters have to be able to look at him and say, "Yes, I can imagine him as premier."

If we go by the polls published by Corporate Research Associates — the only long-running, reliable, public source we have — that's not what most people are saying.

Baillie's support has bounced around the teens throughout the McNeil mandate.

Adviser's curse

Maybe Baillie, a former chief of staff to PC saint John Hamm, carries the curse of the adviser. There are some people who excel in the back rooms but not out front — just like former PC leader John Tory in Ontario or former NDP leader Adrian Dix in British Columbia.

There was a glimmer of hope for Baillie in the latest CRA poll.

Baillie's support is rising and Stephen McNeil's support is sliding. Unfortunately for Baillie, the opening gap was so large that McNeil still holds a comfortable lead.

In comparison, at this point in 2009, Darrell Dexter had pulled even with Rodney MacDonald in voter preference; and in 2013, Stephen McNeil was ahead of Dexter.

If Baillie is surging, he has left it very late.

Burrill unknown

Gary Burrill has been NDP leader for a little over a year. Baillie is a known quantity to whom voters have not warmed, but Burrill is simply an unknown quantity. That's reflected in his low poll numbers.

Burrill has an additional challenge. He's currently without a seat, and will have to work hard to win one.

In Halifax Chebucto he's up against incumbent Liberal MLA Joachim Stroink and the energetic John Wesley Chisholm for the PCs. By no means is Burrill a shoo-in.

Having to fight for personal election means Burrill can't be on the road as much as he should. Fighting for the leader's seat will drain party resources.

In contrast, Baillie and McNeil will easily win their constituencies — in Cumberland South and Annapolis, respectively — and so can concentrate fully on the province-wide campaign.

Opposition ace

Despite all the disadvantages, the opposition parties have one big ace.

There's a saying in politics, and it's true: governments are voted out, not voted in.

Voters will happily give the heave-ho to a premier and government they don't like, without necessarily thinking too hard about whether the alternatives are better.

Nova Scotians heaved the PCs in 2009 and the NDP in 2013.

Voters in New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador heaved their governments too.

Canadians heaved Stephen Harper's Conservatives in 2015, side-swiping the NDP in their rush to the Liberals.

And let's not talk about what just happened south of the border.

If the public's in a heaving state of mind, all the opposition parties need to do is stay out of the way, and they're in.


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.