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Liberals Contort Themselves Angling for Progressive Voters

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
Nova Scotia Liberal leader Stephen McNeil won't confirm that his party commissioned a poll asking whether respondents would support banning health care strikes. (Wikipedia photo)
Nova Scotia Liberal leader Stephen McNeil won't confirm that his party commissioned a poll asking whether respondents would support banning health care strikes. (Wikipedia photo)

Ben Sichel

There’s a war of words going on between labour activists and Liberal MLAs in Nova Scotia. At issue is a controversial multi-issue opinion poll being done by Gandolf Group, a polling firm with Liberal ties, according to the Chronicle-Herald. Among many other questions, the poll asks respondents if they would support “[b]anning healthcare strikes.”

The Pictou Bee, an anonymously written political blog, seems to have been first to report on the poll and link it to the provincial Liberals. Joan Jessome, president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union (NSGEU), published a memo to its members on its website in which it expressed concern that the Liberals would consider removing workers’ right to strike – the ability to withdraw one’s labour being a fundamental right if employees are to have any power at all in the workplace.

Liberal leader Stephen McNeil responded to Jessome via his Facebook page, stating that the Liberal Party “supports the right to strike and will continue to do so,” and calling Jessome’s post “an attack by Joan Jessome against me and our party.”

McNeil and other Liberals still have neither confirmed nor denied whether the Gandalf polls were done for their party, despite being repeatedly questioned on the matter by Jessome and other labour activists. This non-denial, however, means it’s pretty safe to conclude that these are indeed Liberal polls (not to mention the fact that some other questions on the poll, such as one about “breaking Nova Scotia Power’s monopoly,” are taken straight from Liberal talking points).

Labour activists such as the Canadian Labour Congress’s Tony Tracy, then, have been asking the party: why poll on this question if the Liberals did not consider it a possibility? So far Stephen McNeil and other MLAs in his caucus have not answered.

Another interesting question, however, is why the party would want to hide the fact it has been asking questions about banning strikes.

The answer, it would seem, is in Liberals’ complicated identity as a so-called centre-left party. There are many traditional NDPers and progressive voters in Nova Scotia who have been deeply disappointed with many aspects of the province’s first-ever NDP government (as tends to be the case when the NDP wins provincial office in Canada). As the party has emphasized balanced budgets and deficit-cutting, with corresponding service cuts, many elements of the party’s base are feeling unmotivated heading into a probable fall election. A blogger at rabble.ca recently compiled a laundry list of the NDP’s progressive failings during its first mandate.

The Liberals, as is frequently the case both provincially and federally, are trying to appeal to progressive voters disaffected with the NDP. The party’s rhetoric on “corporate giveaways,” surtaxes on the rich (of which there are very few in Nova Scotia, incedentally) and the like seems to be trying to position itself as further left than the NDP on key issues.

Hence the hesitation to overtly declare war on organized labour. A poll asking about public opinion on banning strikes could legitimately be read as a first shot.

In general, the idea that the Liberals are a party of the left is absurd. The party led Nova Scotia for a good part of its history and has never strayed from its capitalist, pro-business roots. The Bee article, re-posted to the NSGEU website notes that “[t]he last time the Liberals were in power [from 1993-99] saw the worst period of labour unrest in Nova Scotia’s recent history,” with the John Savage government clawing back on thousands of public-sector jobs and social services. Based on more recent experience from other jurisdictions, from Dalton McGuinty’s nasty fight with Ontario teachers to shiny new Justin Trudeau’s support for tar sands pipelines, there is little reason to expect any sort of progressive mandate from Nova Scotia Liberals. Liberals “flash left, but turn right,” an effective strategy for attracting casual voters who see themselves as having progressive values. (And of course, large majorities of Canadians express support for progressive values when polled, even if their electoral choices don’t always match up.)

There is much to lament in the performance of the current NDP government. But the current polling dust-up is just one indication of why one should be wary of Liberals’ apparent promises of a more progressive mandate. Rather than hope for a great red saviour, progressives should think about how to relate to whichever party forms government – as David Bush has done is his recent excellent blog post on the NDP and the left in Nova Scotia – and figure out how to spite our faces while keeping our noses intact.

Twitter: @bsichel

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