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Is there a future for the NDP in New Brunswick?

 by Nicole O’Byrne and Gregory Ericson

Mouseland was a place where all the little mice lived and played, were born and died. And they lived much the same as you and I do. They even had a Parliament. And every four years they had an election. Used to walk to the polls and cast their ballots … And every time on election day all the little mice used to go to the ballot box and they used to elect a government. A government made up of big, fat, black cats … And because they were cats, they naturally looked after cats instead of mice.

— Mouseland, a parable told by Tommy Douglas

 In many respects, the political history of New Brunswick resembles Tommy Douglas’s fabled Mouseland. Since Confederation, voters have elected either Liberal or Conservative governments. Predictably, the winning party has been the one most strongly supported by the economic elite in the province.

The tradition of clientele politics, in which the mice are promised expensive pieces of cheese in return for their votes, is alive and well in New Brunswick. In September’s election, as had happened frequently in the past, the Liberals and Conservatives put forward platforms full of empty promises such as new laptops for university students and a freeze in utility rates. These promises were designed to attract the mice at the polls, but the parties had no real intention of implementing them in light of the province’s dire financial situation. In this culture, third parties have had little success because no one believes they can form a government. For example, the NDP has elected only three MLAs in the province’s history, and its popular support has never exceeded 12 per cent.

Nevertheless, given the NDP victory in the 2009 Nova Scotia election, many anticipated a breakthrough in New Brunswick in 2010. The NDP Provincial Council gave priority to electing party leader Roger Duguay in his Miramichi riding, which overlaps with the federal riding of NDP MP Yvon Godin. Generally, the campaign was a good one for the NDP and the party received extensive media coverage for the first time in living memory. The party’s focus on the economy and its promise to bring greater fiscal responsibility to government contrasted with the cynicism of the Liberals and Conservatives. The NDP’s message more accurately reflected the perilous state of the province’s economy. It also echoed a return to traditional CCF-NDP values in which the development of important social programs such as medicare is inextricably linked to good fiscal management.

However, this message did not connect with the electorate, and the anticipated breakthrough did not materialize. The NDP received only 10.4 per cent of the popular vote and failed to elect Duguay or any other MLAs. Once again, the voice of the NDP will only be heard from outside the legislature.

So why did the NDP fail to capture the imagination of New Brunswick voters? In our opinion, there are a number of reasons.

The departure of charismatic leader Elizabeth Weir, who sat as the sole NDP MLA from 1991 to 2004, left the party with a leadership vacuum that was poorly filled by subsequent party leader Alison Brewer. In the 2006 election, the party received a disappointing 5.1 per cent of the vote. The selection of Duguay as leader in 2007 marked a return to stable leadership; however, the party was not well organized and was deeply in debt.

The fundraising efforts of the two major parties dwarfed the efforts of the NDP. For example, in one evening the Conservatives raised more than $400,000, while the entire budget for the NDP campaign was approximately $125,000. (The unions donated some $20,000 to the NDP.) Further, the NDP’s ability to raise funds was limited by the fact that its finances had been so mismanaged that it could not borrow funds without providing personal guarantors.

The party’s poor showing of 5.1 per cent in the 2006 election had greatly reduced the formula-based funding received from the government. As a result, the party organization had suffered and half the provincial constituency associations had disintegrated. Information such as names of past volunteers and donors and previous sign locations was simply not available. And other third party campaigns, the People’s Alliance and the Green Party, added to the difficulties of mounting a successful campaign. However, as a result of this campaign, the NDP machine has been rejuvenated. This is largely due to the efforts of campaign director (and Inroads contributor) Dominic Cardy.

In addition to the financial and organizational problems, the NDP message was also to blame for the party’s poor showing at the polls. As part of its electoral strategy, the NDP adopted the slogan “The Voice of Middle Class Families.” This slogan heralded an attempt to shift the party away from its traditional position as a leftist third party. Throughout its history in New Brunswick, the role of the NDP has been to provide a moral voice in the public sphere rather than a mainstream electoral machine. As exemplified by the prodigious efforts of Elizabeth Weir, the role of the NDP has been to keep the other parties honest.

The decision to market the NDP as a potential government alienated traditional NDP supporters. The centrist shift was seen to offend a main tenet of the party’s political philosophy – that democratic socialism is about equitable redistribution of income and services. Furthermore, the focus on fiscal responsibility is only part of the equation. The NDP missed an opportunity in this election to convince voters that austerity measures are important, but not an end in themselves. Austerity can provide the means by which effective government programs and infrastructure can be developed to service the needs of smaller-scale economies.

The recent election campaign was not so much an electoral failure for the NDP as a missed opportunity to engage in a dialogue about the potential of social democracy in New Brunswick. By pushing to the centre without engaging in the dialogue, the party alienated many community and social activists, union members and other traditional supporters. This cost the party dearly in terms of fundraising and volunteer support.

In our opinion, the way forward involves a re-engagement with traditional grassroots methods of organizing and coalition-building to develop common political ground. An effective way for a third party to establish itself is to offer the electorate an alternative in both its structure and its platform. And many New Brunswickers have an appetite for an alternative voice in politics.

The large-scale and successful protests against the Liberal government’s proposed sale of New Brunswick Power to Hydro-Quebec and the proposed changes to French immersion schooling illustrate that New Brunswickers are not suffering from a “culture of defeat” as Stephen Harper declared in 2001. Rather, it appears that the citizens of New Brunswick are more than willing to protest when their government makes decisions that do not reflect popular opinion. The future of the NDP depends not so much on its becoming another species of cat, but rather on its ability to create an effective voice for the mice.

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About the Author

Nicole O'byrne
Nicole O’Byrne is an assistant professor in the Faculty of Law of the University of New Brunswick and a PhD candidate at the University of Victoria.




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