Howard Epstein ponders his future with the NDP

Halifax MLA may leave the party to sit as an independent in the legislature

click to enlarge Halifax-Chebucto MLA Howard Epstein
Halifax-Chebucto MLA Howard Epstein
While the NDP caucus considers what to do with Howard Epstein, Epstein is in turn rethinking his position with the NDP. In an interview with The Coast last Friday, Epstein openly mulled over his future with the party. He says he is considering leaving the party and sitting as independent in the legislature.

The proposed downtown convention centre is one factor in a constellation of issues that is causing the Halifax MLA to rethink his relationship with the NDP. In our Friday interview, Epstein revealed that the convention centre would cost $160 million, and the proposal was for the province and city to each pay $57 million, with the remaining $46 million to come from the federal government. We broke that news Monday.

Reaction from Epstein's NDP colleagues was swift. It's "unacceptable for Mr. Epstein to make those comments public," Infrastructure minister Bill Estabrooks told Metro. "Caucus solidarity and responsibility to us as colleagues was breached," he told the Chronicle-Herald.

As Tuesday progressed, there was plenty of speculation that Epstein would be kicked out of the NDP caucus for his perceived slight of telling the taxpayers how much they would be paying for the convention centre. The caucus holds its weekly meeting today, Wednesday.

Epstein has been active in NDP politics for three decades. He is widely regarded as intelligent, dedicated and a crucial part of the party’s electoral success. But, since Darrell Dexter formed the first NDP government last year, Epstein has been increasingly marginalized.

As a former executive director of the Ecology Action Centre, Epstein was the logical choice for minister of the environment, but Dexter instead appointed former fisher Sterling Belliveau of Shelburne to that position. Adding insult to injury, Dexter locked Epstein out of cabinet altogether. Earlier this year, Epstein was further alienated from his party when the government relaxed mercury standards that had been written into the Environmental Goals and Sustainable Prosperity Act.

And over the past few weeks, as the convention centre issue has taken centre stage in internal NDP debates, rumours have been flying in political circles that Epstein is mulling over leaving the party completely. When asked directly of that possibility Friday, he didn't deny it:

“I have been talking very frankly with my colleagues, urging them not to put any money into the convention centre,” said Epstein. “If the decision goes against the view that I have, then I’ll certainly think about what to do, but a very serious decision like leaving [the caucus] would only be taken in the context of much wider considerations. It wouldn’t be a one-issue matter. If I were to ask myself that question, it would be based on multiple factors.

“I would have to decide where best to place my efforts. I mean, I’ve been a member of the NDP for a long time, 30 years, I’ve won five elections provincially, people vote for me because I work hard on issues they think are important, and I would have to assess, I guess, how progressive and hopeful our new government is, or is likely to be.

“So it wouldn’t be a one-issue matter. When I ask myself, as people do, ‘What are you going to do next?’ or ‘What’s your future like?’ then they ask that as a complex question, not as a simple question.

“People have been very good to me,” he continued. “But there’s a reason I get elected; I get elected because people can look to my public record over the years---as a lawyer in private practice, as someone who does pro bono work, as the executive director of the Ecology Action Centre, as a former city councillor. I mean, we know each other."

Estabrooks appeared to be ready to announce provincial support for the convention centre this week, but Dexter has said that it needs more discussion before an announcement is made. Is Dexter slowing the process for fear Epstein will leave the party?

“It beats me,” answered Epstein. “I don’t know what the cabinet discussion has been. This has been actively debated, believe me---there are strongly held opinions, and people are looking at this in a lot of detail, and are generally not shy about saying what they think. This is not an easy decision.”

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