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NDP government: Real change for a change? 

Will the new majority government be able to balance the books and stick to its committment to reduce poverty in this province?

Originally published at The Halifax Media Co-op, a project of the Dominion News Co-operative. Republished with consent.

Darrell Dexter seemed to be enjoying himself Thursday as he addressed his newly expanded NDP caucus. "This frivolity has got to stop," the smiling premier-designate told caucus members who only moments before had been laughing, shaking hands and embracing as they celebrated Tuesday's election victory. Now they sat expectantly around the caucus table as party officials and journalists looked on from the sides of the crowded room. "We tried to make the table as big as we could," Dexter joked, a reference to the fact that the NDP had gained 11 seats for a total of 31, enough for a comfortable majority in the 52-seat legislature. The Liberals won 11 to become the official opposition while the governing Conservatives came third with only 10 seats.

Seven decades in the electoral wilderness

The first meeting of the new NDP caucus and the election which made it possible were historic for the province's social democratic party. According to historian Murray Beck, the Nova Scotia NDP's roots go back to 1938 when United Mine Workers union locals in Cape Breton voted to set up a provincial branch of the CCF or Co-operative Commonwealth Federation. The CCF elected its first member to the Nova Scotia legislature in a Cape Breton by-election in 1939. But it was nearly 40 years before the CCF/NDP won even four seats in a general election. (That happened in 1978.)

The party's big breakthrough came in the election of 1998 when the Liberals and NDP tied at 19 seats each. The Liberals continued to govern until the 1999 election produced a 30-seat Conservative majority with the Liberals and NDP again tied at 11 seats each. The NDP gained in the elections of 2003 and 2006, finally winning a majority government this week nearly 70 years after the first CCF member took his seat in the legislature.

NDP campaign promises

"We got here by focusing on the better deal for today's families," Dexter told his caucus repeating the slogan the party had used in 2006. Its 2009 platform was also remarkably similar. Once again there were "7 commitments that will make life better for today's families." They included promises to create jobs, keep emergency rooms open while reducing health care waiting times as well as a pledge to take sales taxes off home energy "to make life more affordable."

In 2006, the NDP platform promised to balance the budget and cut the $12 billion provincial debt in half by 2020. This time the party promised to "live within our means" which includes balancing next year's budget after auditing the books "to determine the true state of provincial finances."

Real change for a change?

NDP pledges to create jobs, fix health care and balance the budget are hardly remarkable. The other parties habitually make such promises too. As a social democratic party however, the NDP holds out the possibility of something more: the possibility, for example, of improving the lives of the tens of thousands of Nova Scotians who live in poverty. During the election campaign, the non-profit think tank, GPI Atlantic sent a questionnaire to the political parties which included this query: Inequality has been associated with adverse health outcomes. Yet Atlantic Canada’s wealth is very unevenly distributed, with the richest 10% of households owning about half the region's wealth, while the poorest 40% together own only 3.6%. Do you support a reduction in the gap between rich and poor? If so, what is your target and how will you achieve it?

The NDP answer suggested the party has thought about how to alleviate poverty. "Darrell Dexter and the NDP are committed to addressing the many elements of poverty," it began pledging, "affordable housing, decent nutrition, and access to training and educational opportunities, including university access for single parents."

The NDP went on to promise support for women’s centres and transition houses, more subsidized childcare spaces and a plan to allow welfare recipients to keep more of their wages if they find a job. (At present, the provincial government claws back 70 per cent of those wages leaving welfare recipients, already living well below the poverty line, with little incentive to work.)

While the NDP answer seemed constructive and practical, it ended with a stern warning: "The fiscal situation of the provincial government has deteriorated significantly in recent months," it observed, then added that increasing the provincial debt would, in turn, increase interest payments and reduce the amount of government money available for poverty reduction. "The NDP will make it a priority to work toward better funding to address poverty issues, within the context of bringing the Nova Scotian budget into balance."

With balancing the provincial budget as its main priority, the NDP's commitment to poverty reduction seems iffy, at best. "A deficit is not only necessary, it is actually desirable," Conservative PM Stephen Harper declared this week. But for Darrell Dexter, Nova Scotia's soon-to-be NDP premier, that sounds like heresy. For Dexter, slaying the deficit seems to come before everything else, including helping the poor help themselves.

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