Monday, October 14, 2013

Mulcair's prospects and the Nova Scotia Election

Recent national columns have suggested that the loss by the NDP in the recent Nova Scotia election is harmful to the national NDP's hopes for 2015.  For example see these commentaries by Thomas Walkom, Chantal H├ębert, and Jeffrey Simpson. Inevitably all this foretold gloom for the NDP did lead to a counterpoint from Aaron Wherry.

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair
TC's view is that the Nova Scotia defeat will, if anything, be beneficial to the federal NDP.  We live in era of slow growth-induced fiscal pressures on Canadian governments, pressures that result in a dampening of the popularity of incumbent governments when like the Nova Scotia NDP they cut spending and increase taxes.  Even though many have recovered to win elections, we should remember that incumbent governments including those in Ontario, B.C., Alberta and Manitoba had to come from behind to do it. Fumbles by their opponents played critical roles in the final outcome (let's not forget the contribution of Michael Ignatieff to the Harper majority in 2011).

There is an overlap between the federal and provincial political spheres that often causes political grief for the federal cousins of provincial administrations when the latter get into trouble. None of the columns cited above have taken that into account.  Let me give a few examples of this impact, both good and bad for the NDP, from history:
  1.  The only one-term government in Manitoba's history was that of Tory Sterling Lyon, who ruled as a prairie Thatcher from 1977 to 1981. In the 1980 federal election, the NDP won half the Manitoba seats (7 of 14). Mr. Lyon's unpopularity contributed significantly to the outcome.  
  2. Further back a poor showing for the NDP in the 1974 federal election in B.C. (just 2 seats) can be attributed in part to mid-term blues on the part of the NDP Dave Barrett government.  However, the impact of the wage and price control issue was likely more important (the threat of controls pulled union votes toward the Trudeau Liberals).  By 1979 and out of office provincially the NDP bounced back, taking 8 constituencies, more like their long-term normal. 
  3. In the 1988 federal election the NDP had enormous success in both Saskatchewan winning, 10 of 14 seats, in no small measure because of the profound unpopularity of the PC government of Grant Devine, and B.C., winning 19 of 32 seats, where Premier Bill Vander Zalm was on his way to destroying the B.C. Social Credit party, a provincial cousin to the federal Tories. The 1988 election was the previous high water mark for the NDP when they won a record of 44 seats, not exceeded until 2011, including 10 ridings in Ontario. 
  4.  In the 1993 election by contrast the NDP was decimated in Ontario losing all their seats.  The austerity program of the Bob Rae NDP Ontario government (most prominently the social contract) played a part in this. Similarly in B.C. the NDP lost all but 2 of its 19 seats where, with the NDP Mike Harcourt government in office in Victoria, the political implications of provincial incumbency reversed the effects felt in 1988. The NDP did win 5 of 14 seats in Saskatchewan where an NDP government elected in 1991 and beginning what would be 16 years in office was still holding its popularity.  (Its own austerity program could be blamed on the previous PC Devine government.)
So Thomas Mulcair faces 2015 with an almost clean slate provincially. Only in Manitoba where the incumbent Selinger government has recently been taking a beating in the polls does trouble beckon. As it is the NDP holds just two federal ridings in Manitoba currently.

Not being in office provincially has in the past been and is now an asset for the federal NDP not a liability.