Howard Epstein knows what killed the NDP

Former MLA offers his political insights in a new memoir.

Howard Epstein knows what killed the NDP
Christopher Majka
Howard Epstein at home with the proverbial first copy of Rise Again.

A former backbencher and an ex-Halifax council member, retired politician Howard Epstein has now published a political memoir, Rise Again: Nova Scotia’s NDP on the Rocks. Among other things, Epstein’s book is the former MLA’s account of the New Democrats’ sole term in office before being knocked back to third-party status in the 2013 election.

Why did you decide to write this account for the book-buying public?
I wrote a lot of it two years ago. Mostly, that was for my own interest. I had vague thoughts that I might publish it, but I wasn’t in any rush. It was only after [former NDP cabinet minister] Graham Steele published his book [last year] that I realized I really should put it into shape to be issued to the general public. My concern was that I didn’t want Graham’s book to stand as the one account of the NDP government.

You wrote that “profound change has to happen” to Nova Scotia’s NDP. Change in terms of core values or beliefs, or change with respect to getting back into power?
Change in adherence to core beliefs. I think the problem was that we got away from delivering on what it was we had said for many years, in the opposition, that we stood for. And that wasn’t really the kind of government that we delivered, and that’s the nature of the problem. Certainly, we have organizational problems at the moment. The membership is kind of at a historic low and the party has very little money, and there are a lot of constituency associations where there’s not much in the way of structure or activity.

What toppled the New Democrats’ one-term government: a lousy election campaign, a lackluster record or both?
It was the contrast between how we governed and how we had advertised ourselves when we were in the opposition. In the opposition, we kept saying things like: “It’s time to elect a government that’s on the side of ordinary Nova Scotians.” But in government, we gave every appearance of being very much like Tories or Liberals.

Looking back, how would you categorize Darrell Dexter’s performance as party leader and as a premier?
Well, Darrell’s a very talented fellow. But I think that he wasn’t as strong a New Democrat as the party needed. So much was put on Darrell personally that the party identified itself very strongly with him. The problem was that he was nervous of traditional kinds of New Democrat positions. He was not keen on speaking about anti-poverty measures and he was not keen on talking about the possibility of nationalizing anything, and he certainly wasn’t going to go for public automobile insurance and he identified strongly with Nova Scotia Power.

Governments come and go in this province, and significant changes for the better often remain stuck on the launching pad. Why is that?
The political parties are too nervous and too focused on winning seats, especially winning government. They end up asking themselves all the time, about any particular issue: “Is what I’m going to say good or bad for me and my party?” Rather than: “Is a particular position good or bad for Nova Scotians?”

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