KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) - In our last of three interviews with NDP leadership candidates we speak with Dave Wilson, MLA for Sackville-Cobequid. Wilson is a former paramedic who was first elected in 2003. During the Dexter government years he served as minister of Health & Wellness, minister of Acadian Affairs and minister of Communities Culture & Heritage.
HMC - How do you look back on the Dexter government? When did you begin to see signs that things were getting off the rails, and what did you do to correct the situation?
I am proud to have been part of the first NDP government in Nova Scotia. We had many great successes. But definitely there were issues. The support from our members and the residents of Nova Scotia withered by the 2013 election.
I worked hard as a backbencher when we first got elected to try to make sure that I represented not only our party and the values of our party, but also the constituents of Sackville-Cobequid and that was always on the forefront of my mind.
I think that many felt we were not NDP enough, and others thought we were too NDP, and we were caught in the middle. It was a challenge for us as a government to make sure that people understood the decisions we made and the direction we were going. We brought in a lot of positive changes. But we did lose touch with our party members, and once that happens you need to regain their trust. That is what the leadership campaign is all about.
We need to get back to how we were successful in the past. To make sure that our members feel part of the team and are able to have their voice heard, and have their views discussed and debated and to feel united. New Democrats need to believe in themselves again. I believe that we can be that party again that members can be proud of and that Nova Scotians will turn to as a viable option in the next election.
Since the election loss I have tried to talk to as many members as possible, to get a feel for what they are thinking and why there was this disconnect with the government caucus and the premier. As a new government those around the premier at the time circled the premier and that resonated out. People were alienated and were not able to have that access with the premier. I felt that way, and I was a cabinet minister.
That was a mistake that I know I learnt from and will not repeat. Our voters and members want to feel that they are able to connect with the leader, and being new to government and not having been down that road before, some mistakes were made, and the challenge is to learn from them. And I think we have done that.
There were a number of issues that didn’t resonate well with Nova Scotians. The handling of the Cat (cancellation of the Yarmouth to Maine ferry) had an impact especially in the southern region of the province. Many who were in government at the time would love to go back in time and revisit that and discuss that decision with people from that area and the province altogether. Many were in agreement that the Cat was the worst ship for that ferry crossing, but it was the way it was handled and the timeline that was in front of us.
I wished we could go back and change that. It’s one of the glaring examples of how we could have handled things differently. We must learn from that and not repeat those mistakes of the past. It gives me a bit of advantage to have been both in government and in opposition prior to that.
HMC - How can the provincial NDP regain the confidence of voters? What should it do to rebuild trust with its members and progressive activists in general?
Being open to our membership will translate into being open with Nova Scotians when we ask them to consider us in in the next election. We need a renewal of our party. We need to grow our party membership and to do that we need to appeal to a broader audience. We need to engage especially with younger people in an environment that they engage in, I mean social media and newer technologies. The days of having a five-hour meeting in a basement are over, we need to change how we engage with our membership. When I was minister of health we organized a telephone town hall around healthcare. That went over well. It provided an opportunity for party members and others to engage with me as minister. As leader I want to tap into that and make sure that there are opportunities to be engaged and part of the inner workings of the party. I am committed to making that happen.
This (leadership campaign) is about a new beginning and about new ideas. If I am fortunate enough to become the leader, I think it is important that we seek the advice of experts within the party, and of those who are passionate about certain issues. We have educated and passionate people who care about issues like poverty, and we need to tap into those resources. Many turned to us to be that voice and to bring positive changes.
The (affordable living) tax credit that we brought in helped immensely for those low income Nova Scotians, but we need to do more. Part of that is looking at the minimum wage of $15 per hour. But we can’t just stop there. We need to look at what is the living wage in Nova Scotia. A recent report calculates that in Halifax for example a living wage is $20.10 per hour.
What we don’t want is businesses putting up barriers. We are just talking about a number. It should be about what goes into calculating that living wage. We need accessible affordable daycare, that would impact what that living wage is. We need accessible and affordable public transportation in the province. We need food security to be addressed in our province. Until we have a broader discussion with the public, I think that is where we can have a really positive impact on poverty in NS.
My vision of how the party should move forward is not complete . As leader I need to engage with party members and other Nova Scotians to make sure our vision is the best it can be.
HMC - What are your political priorities?
Poverty was something I witnessed in my prior career as a paramedic. Going into people’s homes and realizing the conditions that some people live in... It was back than I knew that I was a New Democrat. Those feelings would not go away, and I would talk with my wife, and figure how to get resources for those individuals. It made me into the MLA I became.
Healthcare is the number one priority for many Nova Scotians, rich and poor. We need to make sure we do everything we can to protect the greatest gift our party has given Canadians, which is our public healthcare system. It is under attack in Nova Scotia, and in the country. We need to make sure that we continue to build on Tommy Douglas’ vision and expand it. People are struggling for things like dental care and eye care and pharmaceuticals. And we need to continue to push in that direction.
Also the rights of workers. One of the reasons (for me joining the NDP) was how I was treated as a paramedic. The party that was defending us and standing up for us was the NDP. Robert Chisholm was the leader at the time and he gave an amazing speech in the legislature, and I just knew that he understood what I was going through, and I joined the party the very next day. Protecting workers’ rights is so important. Not just unionized workers, all workers. Those rights have been under attack especially over the last two years.
Those are just three areas that are top of mind. I know that Nova Scotians and organizations that support some of our most vulnerable residents have turned to us to be their voice. We need to maintain the six seats we hold now, and build on that, because there are many people who are looking for the party to stand up for them. I want to be part of that and bring leadership to the party, so that we can one day again have the privilege of forming the government.
Edited for clarity and length
We lost sight of who we are. An interview with NDP leadership candidate Lenore Zann
To be the first jurisdiction where poverty is eliminated. An interview with NDP leadership candidate Gary Burril
Follow Robert Devet on Twitter @DevetRobert