With the usual caveat against reading too much into a by-election, there is a lot to ponder in the wake of this week’s vote that saw Conservative Steve Craig win the Sackville-Cobequid seat by a narrow margin of less than 200 votes over the NDP’s Lara Fawthorpe.

First off, despite the closeness of the final vote, it was a disheartening loss for the NDP, a “bitter pill to swallow”as Gary Burrill put it in his message to members. The party had held the seat for almost 35 years, its procurement a watershed in the NDP’s slow evolution from a Cape Breton-based entity to a political force on the mainland. When John Holm was elected in Sackville in the 1984 general election he became, after Alexa McDonough, only the second NDP/CCF MLA from Halifax in the province’s history.

Over nine subsequent elections, Sackville voters returned New Democrats to the legislature, with vote shares ranging from a narrow 36 per cent for Holm in 1988 to a high of 65 per cent for Dave Wilson in 2009. Lara Fawthorpe, and the many volunteers who worked on her campaign, can take some solace from the fact that her share of the vote, at 39 per cent, was higher than Holm’s 1988 result and Wilson’s vote share in 2013.

Anyone wanting to spin the by-election into an obituary for the NDP in Nova Scotia should take note of those numbers. And those who want to see this as the harbinger of some kind of Conservative tide should also weigh Steve Craig’s local profile and ability to deliver (see below)  against the party’s sluggish rating in the most recent province-wide polls.

As so often happens, the outcome in Sackville-Cobequid came down to the splits. The Liberals, who were within 85 votes of taking the seat from Wilson 2013, saw their support collapse to just over 10 per cent. At the same time the Greens, riding a bit of the current zeitgeist, saw their share nearly double. The modest 226 vote jump for Greens was greater than Craig’s margin of victory, a consequence that according to Wednesday morning’s Halifax Examiner, had some NDP supporters blaming the Greens for the NDP loss. Tim Bousquet admonished the finger pointers, arguing that “it’s not up to the voters to fall in line behind your party loyalty; it’s up to the candidate and the party to win over the voter.”

NDP-Green vote solid

That’s true, but leaves unresolved a second issue to mull over: vote-splitting between parties that to the casual observer would seem to have similar platforms and/or values. That can have consequences, good and not so good. Early in the last century the splits from competition between the Liberals and Conservatives provided opportunities for third parties like the CCF/NDP to come up the middle and win seats. That was okay, but more recently rivalry between the NDP and the Greens in British Columbia helped the nominally Liberal but otherwise conservative governments led by Gordon Campbell and Christie Clark. And then, of course, there was the right wing split between the Progressive Conservatives and the Reform/Alliance that made things easy for the Liberals for a decade before the conservatives booted out what was left of the progressives to present an ominous united front after 2003.

I wrote about the most recent manifestation of the perils of center-left vote-splitting phenomenon following last month’s federal byelection in Nanaimo-Ladysmith. Who knew the Sackville-Cobequid byelection would provide another example so soon?

Party 2017 percentage2019 percentage
Green 3.3 7.7
Atlantica? 1.1 0.7
NDP + Green47.546.8

As the table shows, the combined NDP-Green vote in the Sackville-Cobequid byelection was less than 1 per cent below 2017 and almost five percentage points higher than the Conservative share in 2019. So it can be argued – as some  are doing – that the Conservatives eked out a win because the Greens claimed a larger share of the combined vote this time.

That argument loses force when you look at the rest of the numbers. A more likely hypothesis is that the Conservatives won because the Old Line Party  vote – which barely increased – went 4-1 to the Conservatives. If it had split closer to 50-50, as was the case in 2017, Lara Fawthorpe would have won by 700 votes or so. Nevertheless, many on the left believe there is little difference between the old line parties, an observation that seems particularly apt in Nova Scotia where the Tories and Liberals flip and flop to one side or another of a line somewhere slightly to the right of centre. So it’s disconcerting when a smalll re-arrangement of the votes for left-wing parties adds one more member to a PC caucus that, the record shows, is lukewarm to green energy and even more gung-ho than the Liberals are for  pipelines, fracking and the strip mining of gold.

Change election laws 

There is already some talk across the country of a Green-NDP merger. If such a thing happens, it won’t be anytime soon. But beyond the big picture stuff, another more mundane issue coming out of the Sackville-Cobequid by-election is specific, straightforward and should be dealt with by the legislature at the first opportunity. That’s the law allowing elected municipal politicians like Steve Craig to keep their council seats while running for provincial or federal office.

It’s a security blanket  not available to provincial politicians who must resign once they are officially nominated to run federally. Three Conservative MLAs and turncoat New Democrat Lenore Zann have announced they want to run in this fall’s federal election. The fact that the foursome can campaign for a nomination and still hold their provincial seat until their nomination becomes official –as much two weeks into an election campaign – drew the ire of the Premier. McNeil said they should quit as soon as they get their party’s nomination, and waiting for the official date was unprincipled.

No such hair-splitting over official dates, principles and ethics exists for municipal politicians who want to move up the political food chain. Under the Municipal Election Act, a councillor remains an elected official during an election. Lose and it’s back to business as usual at city or town hall.  If successful, he/she has 30 days to clear out the office, leaving the municipality to fill the vacancy though yet another by-election, the cost of which ran to $170,000 when Dartmouthians had to backfill for Councillor Darren Fisher after he rode Justin’s coattails to Ottawa in  2015.

I’ll leave it to others to go back into the mists of time to find the rationale behind this oddity, maybe starting the search in the pre-Confederation era. Whatever its origins all of the major parties have quietly taken advantage of the quirk over the years. “C’mon, run for us, what have you got to lose?” would be an attractive pitch to a municipal politician on the make. But Steve Craig’s performance, which elicited a complaint to Elections Nova Scotia (ENS) from the NDP campaign in  Sackville-Cobequid, shone a much-needed light on the potential for, shall we say, hanky-panky.

The NDP complained that Craig broke the provincial Elections Act by taking advantage of municipal resources to promote himself as a candidate through his Spring newsletter and a $20,000 grant from the $94,000 capital (aka slush) fund available to every councillor. The grant was revealed at a public meeting just as the by-election campaign was officially beginning. Roll out the pork barrel.

Elections Nova Scotia ruled that Craig didn’t break the law, but the ruling, which can be accessed here, depended a lot on dates and technicalities.

And there is a key takeaway from the ENS report, the acknowledgement of a “spillover effect,” particularly from the $20,000 handed out by the Conservative candidate as the campaign officially began. As ENS put it: “The ability to distribute this funding as Mr. Craig did, adds a distinct advantage to candidates who are also members of council that is not afforded to other candidates.”

No kidding.

Unfortunately, Elections Nova Scotia skirted the main issue, recommending only some amendments to require office seekers like Steve Craig to take a leave of absence during election periods. It’s too bad these guardians of electoral decorum didn’t go further and recommend that municipal politicians seeking to advance their careers be subject, at the very least, to the same rules governing upwardly mobile provincial MLAs.

Maybe the Premier, given his disdain for politicians who in his words, “potentially could sit here for months, continue to increase their pensions, continue to take taxpayers money, as they campaign for another federal taxpayers job,” will take the lead?

As journalists lost for an ending are accustomed to saying, the answer to that question, like the others raised by this unusually interesting  by-election, remains to be seen.