N.S. election a sign for federal Liberals: Pandemic performance not the only thing that matters

Click to play video: 'O’Toole Tories cheer Nova Scotia PC win, Trudeau Liberals look for lessons'
O’Toole Tories cheer Nova Scotia PC win, Trudeau Liberals look for lessons
In Tuesday night’s provincial election, the Nova Scotia Progressive Conservative Party secured a majority government, forcing Iain Rankin’s incumbent Liberals into the official Opposition spot. According to political observers, the result could contain a few lessons for Justin Trudeau’s Liberals as they seek another mandate in Ottawa – Aug 18, 2021

The provincial election held in Nova Scotia this week marks the first time since the pandemic began that an incumbent government was defeated. Many have wondered whether this result might be a bad omen for the federal Liberals, who are in pursuit of a majority government on Sept. 20.

The pollsters certainly didn’t see this coming. Like Justin Trudeau and the federal Liberals, their Nova Scotia cousins and their leader Iain Rankin were far ahead in the polls when the election was called. So it was Iain Rankin’s to lose, and he lost it. Or was it that Tim Houston and the Progressive Conservatives made an offer that Nova Scotia could not refuse? And why didn’t the polls pick this up?

Polls taken throughout the campaign saw the Liberal lead shrink each week, PC support grow slightly, and NDP support fluctuate slightly in both directions. The day before the Aug. 17 vote, 338Canada pegged the Liberals at 39.3 per cent of the popular vote, the PCs at 35.7 per cent and the NDP at 21.5 per cent.

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On election night, the results turned out differently: the Liberals captured only 36.7 per cent of the vote, the PCs 38.6 per cent and the NDP 21.1 per cent. So, the difference between the Liberals and the Progressive Conservatives was less than two points, but the composition of the legislature and the balance of power shifted completely. The electoral system exaggerates the effects of movements in public support.

Premier-designate Houston ran a campaign that was strongly focused on health care, a key issue in any Nova Scotia campaign. Gary Burrill and the NDP ran on affordable housing and the need for rent control. Both were energetic, forward-looking campaigns.

But the Liberal campaign did not have the same momentum. No single issue defined the party’s priorities, and so there was a lack of connection with voters. Rankin was quiet and had trouble gaining control of the narrative following a rough start to the campaign. The party originally nominated Robyn Ingraham as the candidate for Dartmouth South, but revoked her candidacy almost immediately, ostensibly out of concern over “boudoir photos” that she had told the party about. The Liberals’ decision to boot the candidate — and reports that the party had encouraged her to cite her mental health — as the reason she was stepping away drew fierce criticism from across the country.

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Click to play video: 'Canada election: Cost of living set to increase'
Canada election: Cost of living set to increase

However, even though Rankin had a less-than-ideal campaign, the truth remains that enough voters rejected a government that provided world-class leadership during COVID-19.

There is a lesson here for the federal Liberals, who are also running on the breadth and scope of their pandemic response. There is no other pressing ballot question from their campaign, and no particular need for a renewed mandate from the public.

For example, the child-care program is perhaps the flagship piece of their campaign, but they’ve started that already – several provinces have signed on. So, they are not asking voters to give permission for a national child-care program; they are asking voters to thank them for child care, the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) and the other programs that were rolled out during the crisis. If Nova Scotia is any indication, this could prove a risky strategy.

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Even when governments have managed the public health and economic implications of the pandemic competently, people want and expect more than that. The global pandemic has both revealed and compounded social, economic and health-related inequities.

This reality has generated an urgent dialogue about how to make society better once the acute public health threat that COVID-19 presents is under control. Therefore, although Trudeau faces criticism for a politicized, opportunistic and unnecessary election call, we are poised to have one of the most pivotal campaigns of our lives, at a critical juncture as we look to recover from the implications of the global pandemic.

The federal leaders are all proposing strategies to address these challenges. Trudeau is focusing on child care and support for businesses in the post-COVID-19 period, but he will face questions on the campaign trail about opening the border, mandatory vaccination and the rising rates of COVID-19 now that things have reopened.

Click to play video: 'Polls still unclear for parties to make gains in 44th federal election'
Polls still unclear for parties to make gains in 44th federal election

Meanwhile, Erin O’Toole and the Conservatives are attempting to appeal to the centre with promises of tax credits to support child care and business recovery. His major risk is alienating the party’s base, which might recoil at the heft of his proposed spending. Jagmeet Singh and the NDP have similar goals as the Liberals, but are planning to tax the rich in order to pay for it all.

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To be clear on the parallels between Nova Scotia and Canada: a loss for Rankin is not to be construed as bad news for Trudeau. It’s a signal that performance during the pandemic is not the only thing that matters.

Also, a vote for Houston’s Progressive Conservatives is not a vote for O’Toole’s Conservatives. Houston identifies as a Red Tory and took special pains to distance himself from O’Toole during the campaign. However, Houston’s fresh, positive, progressive approach might encourage O’Toole to try more of the same. Though some parts of the Conservative base might not be on board, there is tremendous growth potential in putting forward a fresh face on the Conservative Party – especially if Trudeau’s majority is not yet secured.

Lori Turnbull is director of the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University in Halifax. 

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