TARRANT: Lessons from Nova Scotia’s historic election

Article originally published in Toronto Sun

Every election is, to a large degree, an idiosyncratic event. Even so, there are always lessons a smart strategist can take from one election to the next. Some elections, in particular, become case studies that challenge the previous conventional wisdom and push us to rethink how leaders, candidates and parties should behave.

Nova Scotia just finished one such election which established several Canadian firsts. When Tim Houston’s Progressive Conservatives defeated Iain Rankin’s Liberals and earned a resounding majority mandate it represented the first time since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic that an incumbent Canadian government was defeated at the ballot box.

Just as striking was the size of the comeback. As recently as late May 2021, the PCs were 28 points back in public opinion polls and the Liberals were assumed to be cruising to a majority government. The swing in public opinion that occurred during the campaign remains virtually unprecedented in Canadian history.

I was not a disinterested observer of this effort. As a senior advisor to Premier-designate Houston and his campaign team, I had a front row seat to how the Nova Scotia PCs challenged key assumptions about how pandemic era politics are supposed to work in order to close this gap. Some of these lessons remain very relevant to the federal parties now competing for your vote.

The first lesson is that the ‘rally around the flag’ pandemic polling bumps earned by incumbent governments were either illusory or no longer provide the protection they once did. Several other provincial premiers have already seen a coming-back-to-earth of their previous sky-high approvals, but nothing approaches the collapse of Nova Scotia Liberals, who had a 75% approval rating as recently as June.

People are not parking their votes with incumbents as much as they are idling their engines, while waiting for a better offer. The “I know what you did last summer” campaign remains a risky proposition as voters are rarely in the mood to hand out future blank checks as a reward for past performance

The Nova Scotia election also revealed that an increasing portion of the electorate is ready to move-on from a singular focus on pandemic management and consider other issues when marking their ballots. In Nova Scotia, the Houston campaign team saw, from the earliest days, a disconnect in our public opinion research. Despite the Liberals’ strong overall approval ratings, they were viewed terribly on questions related to management of Nova Scotia’s health care system which continues to be gripped by a crippling doctor shortage and ambulance crisis.

The pandemic temporarily masked this policy failure, but with each passing month it became clear that more people were looking past COVID. The single biggest strategic decision the Nova Scotia PCs made was to lean into the issue of health care and differentiate ourselves from the Liberals by building our entire campaign around providing credible solutions to this crisis. For conservatives, it meant using innovative policy to claim public healthcare ground all too often ceded to progressive parties. The voters noticed.

Another lesson from Nova Scotia is that it is fiscal conservative orthodoxy, far more so than social conservatism, that remains out-of-step with the modern Canadian electoral reality. The political coalition that produced leaders like Paul Martin and Mike Harris no longer exists.

The Nova Scotia PCs are traditionally a party of balanced budgets and Premier-Designate Houston is a chartered accountant for whom the budget math comes easy. But in declaring that he was prepared to run larger short-term deficits and not ‘leave the bill on the table’ when it came to investing in health care, Houston left the Liberal party defending an increasingly unsustainable proposition – that spending less on people is a public good.

The final lesson is more of a reminder that for all the pandemic has changed, some things remain the same. Campaigns still matter and can change everything. The Progressive Conservatives ran a near perfect war room with a flawless performance from leader Tim Houston who is a national political star in the making.

The Nova Scotia Liberal campaign lacked any meaningful focus and was further hamstrung by Rankin himself, an evasive candidate who spent much of the campaign hiding from serious questions about his multiple DUI convictions or allegations of sexism in his office.

After a year and a half of COVID fear, Canadians are prepared to start vetting their candidates fully again. Nova Scotians had their chance. Now it’s Canada’s turn.

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