Anyone expecting clear harbingers of things to come from this week’s three byelections in Nova Scotia will likely be disappointed. There were several possible omens to watch for, but none materialized as the status quo prevailed.
Standing pat was most apparent in Argyle-Barrington, vacant because of the resignation of Tory MLA Chris d’Entremont, who like his colleagues in two Cape Breton districts is abandoning the Tim Houston-led provincial Progressive Conservative party and seeking greener pastures with the unprogressive Conservatives at the federal level.
The byelection result in d’Entremont’s former riding was almost a carbon copy of the outcome in the 2017 general election. Just like two years ago, more than half of those eligible to vote in Argyle-Barrington (51 per cent) didn’t bother. Of those who did make it to the polls, 62 per cent voted Conservative and 31 per cent Liberal, a minuscule shift from 65 and 30 per cent in 2017.
The Yarmouth ferry, a perennial political football, should have stirred the pot in that part of the Province, but apparently did not. The Liberals may have expected some reward for their willingness to keep open the spending spigots in the face of widespread condemnation in other parts of the province. But going by the byelection result, any voter gratitude is offset by the government’s bungling of the file that has so far put the kibosh on the sailing season, hurting tourism and leaving hotel operators along the Acadian shore with many vacant rooms.
Health anger ebbs?
In the two Cape Breton ridings turnout was down about 20 per cent and results looked a lot different from those recorded in 2017 – not surprising given that there were twice as many candidates this time around. But the overall shape of things did not change substantially; Conservatives first, Liberals second.
The health care issue is supposed to be killing the Liberals in Cape Breton, but that was not reflected in the byelection results. The Liberal share of the vote increased – from 24 to 31 per cent – in Sydney River-Mira-Louisbourg, and stayed the same in Northside-Westmount, this despite the Liberal plan to close the local hospital.
A spending spree, unveiled by the Premier the day he called the byelections probably had something to do with the Liberals avoiding a worse result. A whirlwind of four announcements in a single morning, consisting of community health centres in North Sydney and New Waterford, a new school and nursing home and funding for a palliative care centre, will take its place in the annals of pre-election vote buying.
Although retaining the two Cape Breton seats they had won in landslides in 2017, the Conservatives were the ones to lose vote share. The margins chalked up in 2017 by would-be members of parliament Alfie MacLeod and Eddie Orrell shrank considerably. In MacLeod’s Sydney River-Mira-Louisbourg, the drop was from 68 to 44 per cent, while in Orrell’s former district the PC vote went from 57 to 29 per cent.
The latter result in Northside-Westmount was mainly because of a split in Conservatives ranks – a defrocked Tory candidate ran as an independent and picked up 19 per cent of the vote. But a fair chunk of anti-government votes – 13 per cent in one district, 11 per cent in the other – went to two other independents, both with ties to a local group seeking a better deal for Cape Breton from equalization.
Overall, given the underwhelming nature of the Conservative wins, Tuesday’s result can hardly be chalked up as another chapter in the growing narrative about the PC’s irresistible progress toward power in the next provincial election.
Green invasion halted?
Another story that didn’t happen was the eclipse of the NDP by the Greens. On election day the media were in a tizzy over a bunch of former NDP candidates in New Brunswick defecting to the Greens, continuation of a pattern going back a ways, discussed here. When the byelection ballots were counted on Tuesday night, it became apparent that, at least for now, the Green takedown of the NDP stops at the Missaguash River, the Nova Scotia-New Brunswick boundary.
Over the years the Nova Scotia NDP has shown varying degrees of weakness in all three districts, and the byelections followed the historical pattern. But the New Democrats held their own in two of the districts and actually increased vote share in Northside-Westmount, getting 17 per cent compared with less than three per cent for the Green candidate.
A more intriguing skirmish in the unfortunate, media-hyped battle of attrition between the Greens and the NDP took place in the Sydney River-Mira-Louisbourg district. There, the NDP’s Mary Beth MacDonald received twice as many votes as the Green Party’s Bill Matheson.
Matheson, the former president of the provincial NDP who quit the party in November, 2017, was taking his second run in the district. He put his name on the ballot there in 2017 for the NDP, picking up 814 votes, 8.7 per cent of the vote. This time, his 284 votes for the Greens represented only 3.9 per cent of the total. New Democrats can take some solace from the fact that their brand still has the upper hand in the battle to keep a foothold in politically conservative districts.