What Justin Trudeau's Liberals could learn from the Nova Scotia election campaign
Published Wednesday, August 4, 2021 10:19AM ADT Last Updated Wednesday, August 4, 2021 10:19AM ADT
HALIFAX -- The election campaign in Nova Scotia may not be getting much attention on the national stage, but the federal Liberals in Ottawa are almost certainly keeping a close watch on the race.
With Justin Trudeau's Liberals appearing poised to seek a third term in office -- a feat their Nova Scotia cousins are now trying to accomplish -- the federal party is keen to to discern how the electorate is feeling heading into what could be Canada's first post-pandemic election, says Tom Urbaniak, a political science professor at Cape Breton University.
"A weak performance by the Nova Scotia Liberals would be somewhat concerning to the federal Liberals," Urbaniak said in an interview Tuesday. "There seemed to be a high level of support going into the (Nova Scotia) election for the incumbent (Liberals). If that level of support is eroded, that would signal to the federal Liberals that the public is volatile."
Voters in Nova Scotia go to the polls Aug. 17, and the low-key, midsummer campaign -- now at the halfway point -- hasn't generated much of a buzz.
The provincial Liberals -- led by 38-year-old Iain Rankin, Canada's youngest premier -- have made it clear their campaign is based on a sense of optimism as the pandemic appears to be subsiding.
"COVID has shown us that we can take on big challenges when we do it together," Rankin said last week during a televised leaders debate. "Nova Scotia is at a pivotal moment .... This election is about our recovery."
That approach is likely to be emulated by the federal Liberals, now that most provinces are easing health protection measures and opening their economies.
"It feels like a post-pandemic election, and there's something exciting about (candidates) going door-to-door," Urbaniak said of the Nova Scotia campaign. "It's a sign of things returning to normal life. That's what this election represents."
However, it would be a mistake to think Nova Scotia's Liberal party is just a junior version of the national party.
Unlike the big-spending approach of the federal Liberals, who committed to more than $100-billion in new spending in their April budget, Nova Scotia's Liberals have stuck to a tight-fisted game plan. Former Liberal premier Stephen McNeil won two back-to-back majorities by preaching fiscal restraint and delivering four consecutive balanced budgets.
Rankin, a soft-spoken former business manager, has made it clear he won't deviate from that course.
"We've seen some big-spending moves from the PCs," said Erin Crandall, a political science professor at Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S. "And we have the Liberal party saying, 'Yes, we have to invest in health-care and assisted-living homes, but we have to make sure we're not overspending."
During last week's leaders debate, Rankin warned about going too far into the red: "We can't have billion-dollar deficits today without that impacting our future economy." As well, he admonished Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Houston for pledging to deliver 2,500 new long-term care beds, saying that amounted to an "overbuild" of the health-care system.
To distinguish themselves from the decidedly right-of-centre Liberals, Houston's Tories have shifted to the left by focusing their campaign on improving health care by investing an additional $430 million in annual funding.
"No one cuts their way out of an economic downturn," he said during the first week of the campaign.
Meanwhile, Houston has made a point of distancing his party from the federal Conservatives, led by Erin O'Toole. In March, Houston said it "wasn't helpful" when federal party members rejected a resolution that said the party believes "climate change is real."
As for the New Democrats, led by United Church minister Gary Burrill, they have rejected the centrist politics that brought the party to power in Nova Scotia for the first time in 2009. Instead, they are campaigning on a traditionally progressive platform that promises rent control, a $15 minimum wage and 10 paid sick days for all workers.
The Green party, which has virtually no profile in Nova Scotia, is being led by an interim leader Jessica Alexander. The party does not have a full slate of candidates.
The Liberals entered the fifth year of their mandate in May and were reduced to a minority in the legislature following resignations of several members. At dissolution they held 24 of the 51 seats, followed by the Progressive Conservatives with 17 and the New Democrats with five. There were three Independents and two vacancies.
"The Liberals started out (the campaign) with nowhere to go but down," said Urbaniak, adding that their decision to keep the provincial legislature closed for over a year limited their rivals' public exposure.
Rankin, who was elected to lead the Liberals in February, benefited from extensive media coverage by taking part in frequent COVID-19 briefings, which often reinforced the province's largely successful efforts to limit the spread of the virus.
"The Liberals know they have to extrapolate from pandemic management to economic recovery -- and they have to make that link," said Urbaniak. "That's why they are running on a message of optimism .... To some extent, this election will ride on, are Nova Scotians feeling optimistic and secure, or are they feeling anxious about the future?"
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 4, 2021.