The politics of BULLSHIT | News | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST

The politics of BULLSHIT

Why Nova Scotia’s political parties aren’t addressing the issues that matter, and what we can do about it.

The next premier of Nova Scotia will be...a white man. He'll take a centrist approach to all issues, developed after extensive consultation with focus groups and party pollsters.

The next premier will continue Nova Scotia's long history of millions of dollars in subsidies and tax rebates for corporations from away. He'll be good friends with the new president of Nova Scotia Business, Inc., who will be hired soon after the election. The two will be the featured guests at Chamber of Commerce breakfasts, where all the be-suited guests will gush about Halifax becoming a global financial services centre—"the next Singapore," the newest version of "the next Celtic Tiger—thanks to the miracle of government "investments" in private companies.

The next premier of Nova Scotia will, in late 2015, show up with a giant pair of scissors on Argyle Street to cut the ribbon in front of the shiny new convention centre. He'll give a pretty speech about how the convention centre will "put Nova Scotia on the map." He'll praise Joe Ramia, the developer of the convention centre, saying that Ramia built this beautiful facility out of the kindness of his humungous heart, and that the $375 million government payout for the building is peanuts, for all the return it'll bring. The next premier, Ramia, Halifax mayor Mike Savage and Trade Centre Limited president Scott Ferguson will then go up to a top-floor bar and toast their own worthiness.

The next premier of Nova Scotia will have an iron grip on Communications Nova Scotia, and all government press releases will be vetted by party managers. The message management will make Stephen Harper blush, and the same politically meaningless buzzwords will be uttered repeatedly. PR firms will be hired by the government to conduct ad campaigns that blur the line between government and party.

The next premier of Nova Scotia will oversee the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars to expand highways and to build new ones. He'll support the building of Highway 113 through the heart of the Birch Cove Lakes Wilderness, and continue planning efforts for the billion-dollar expansion of Highway 102. His budgets won't see a single nickel directed for operating transit in the province.

The next premier of Nova Scotia will talk a lot about jobs, especially when he announces big "investments" in corporations from away. He won't lower tuition rates, and so the increasing student loan debt burden will cause more graduates to move out of province to get better-paying jobs. The vast majority of graduates who manage to stay won't be able to start businesses or otherwise be creative, for fear of missing their monthly debt payment.

The next premier of Nova Scotia will crow about meeting the 2013 target of 18.5 percent for renewable energy generation spelled out in the Environmental Goals and Sustainable Prosperity Act, but he won't mention that the target was reached mostly because of the global recession flattened economic growth, and therefore there wasn't the expected increase in power demand, and because the price of natural gas is now much lower than the price of oil. He certainly won't mention that his government is doing nothing at all to meet the long-term greenhouse gas emission reduction targets in EGSPA.

All of the above will be true if Darrel Dexter forms another NDP government. It will be true if Stephen McNeil leads the Liberals to victory. It will be true if Jamie Baillie miraculously leads the PCs first past the post. Without any discernible differences between the parties on the large issues before voters—not to mention the complete avoidance of lots of large issues that should be before voters—it doesn't much matter who wins the election.

Corporate subsidies

Part of the problem is that Nova Scotia is faced with real constraints. Almost half the provincial budget—46 percent—is eaten up by health care. Thirteen percent is spent on education. And about 10 percent goes to servicing past debt of over $14 billion. On the revenue side, nearly a third of all money in government coffers—$2.95 billion out of $9.5 billion—comes from federal transfer payments.

Those realities don't leave a lot of wiggle room when it comes to discretionary spending, especially for political parties that are unwilling to take on the electoral risk of big or radical changes in the way things are done. Instead, all three parties propose nickel-and-dime changes in expenditures, and put all hope on the fairy tale idea that we'll see a big increase in provincial income by luring mega corporations into the province, which will hire lots of workers and pay lots of taxes.

There's a long history of corporate subsidies in Nova Scotia. These "economic development" projects have, perversely, done more harm than good to the economy, and account for a big chunk of the province's debt. Both PC and Liberal governments were responsible for past corporate subsidies.

When the NDP formed its first provincial government in 2009, the expectation in some circles was that the party would put an end to corporate welfare, but the exact opposite happened: they doubled down on it. Under Darrell Dexter, the NDP has completely abandoned its socialist roots, and has dumped hundreds of millions of dollars into corporations in the name of economic development.

In 2011, Dexter entered into a deal with with Daewoo, a Korean shipbuilding firm, to take over the closed Trenton Iron Works and refit it to build windmill turbine posts. Daewoo put $30 million into the deal, with the government paying $60 million, for which it got 49 percent equity in the operation. Dexter said the deal would generate 500 jobs, but only about 70 people have been hired.

Also in 2011, Dexter tried to bail out the failing Bowater Mersey paper mill with a $50 million rescue package, only to see the mill close just a few months later. The government then acquired the mill, paying $20 million for it and covering $120 million in the company's pension liabilities: figure $190 million to acquire a quarter-million hectares of mostly logged-over land and a paper mill to be dismantled. By all accounts, this was an utter NDP failure. The next year, Dexter paid another $120 million and change to investment firm Stern Partners to take over the Point Tupper paper mill–we'll see if that operation can survive.

We can't know if Liberal or PC governments would have likewise dumped lots of money into struggling industrial operations in order to prop up jobs in politically important rural areas. Maybe they would have. But last year, the Dexter government took corporate subsidies to an entirely new level.

First, Dexter outsourced the province's SAP operations to IBM, contractually obligating the province for over $100 million over the next decade, and additionally promising up to $12.4 million in payroll rebates, should hiring targets be met. Such rebate deals hardly ever result in the promised "new" jobs, and because few provincial SAP workers went to IBM, Dexter has in essence done away with union-protected jobs at the province, giving IBM tax rebates for re-creating the exact same jobs at lower pay.

Second, and most rankling for old-school NDPers, Dexter gave the billionaire Irving family $260 million in the form of a "forgivable loan" for retrofit work needed at the Halifax Shipyard, in order to prepare for the $25 billion federal shipbuilding contract.

Both McNeil and Baillie criticized the Irving deal, and both have said they would put an end to outright grants and "forgivable loans," at least for large companies.

But the Liberal and PC objections don't give confidence that either party would actually put an end to corporate subsidies. For one, both leaders gave only muted criticism of the IBM deal, worrying about the protection of privacy but not the wholesale transfer of a hundred million dollars from the public treasury to the coffers of one of the wealthiest corporations on earth.

Moreover, like the NDP, both opposition parties are enthusiastic supporters of Nova Scotia Business, Inc., the crown corporation that exists for no other purpose than corporate welfare, and all the parties want to continue the payroll rebate program which consists of, yep, outright grants to corporations, albeit after the corporations have actually hired workers. In short, all parties want to continue to give unelected bureaucrats the power to exempt private corporations from the tax code determined democratically at the legislature.

McNeil and Baillie say they oppose grants and forgivable loans, but this is unconvincing given their support for the payroll rebate program. It's easy for a cynic to believe that, when in power, either party will avoid NDP style forgivable loans and upfront grants, but simply continue the corporate subsidies via back-end grants–expanding the payroll rebate program, buying equity stakes in corporations at less-than-market rates (as the NDP did in effect with Daewoo) or by some other financial shell game.

Electrical policy

The only substantive policy debate that has occurred this election concerns electricity. The NDP has embarked on an ambitious plan to tap into the Churchill Falls hydro project in Labrador. This is a huge deal, contractually obligating Nova Scotians to purchase 20 percent of the power generated at Churchill Falls, for decades.

Stephen McNeil criticizes the particulars of the Churchill Falls deal, saying that while he doesn't oppose the hydro project in the abstract, he wants to introduce a competitive market for electricity in Nova Scotia so that other renewable generators can sell power in Nova Scotia.

Further, the Liberals have criticized the funding of Efficiency Nova Scotia through a five percent surcharge on electric bills. McNeil says the agency should be funded by Nova Scotia Power.

McNeil's criticisms are misplaced. Creating a competitive market in renewables necessarily kills the Churchill Falls project, which needs a reliably big and long-term contract like that with Nova Scotia in order to be financially viable. And without Churchill Falls, there simply won't be the renewable power capacity for the province to meet the legislated requirement for Nova Scotia to get 40 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2020.

Moreover, the rate-payer funding mechanism for Efficiency Nova Scotia is considered "best practices," because it takes the power company out of the efficiency business—power companies want to sell more power, not less, so company-funded efficiency measures usually fail. And indeed, in its short existence, Efficiency Nova Scotia has already established itself as one of the most effective such agencies in North America. If it can continue this success, the agency will end up saving ratepayers billions of dollars that won't be needed to build a new power plant.

Dexter, however, has failed to adequately defend the Churchill Falls project, possibly because he doesn't want to be too-strongly identified as an environmentalist. Dexter does mention the renewable targets from time to time, but he ought to be championing Churchill Falls in a big way, with an NDP advertising campaign zeroing in on climate change concerns and the need for reliable renewable power. Without that, the public is left with nothing other than worries over the very real financial risk of the Churchill Falls project. Dexter's defence of the efficiency surcharge has likewise been lukewarm.

Jamie Baillie, for his part, claims that if the PCs are elected he'll freeze electricity rates, without saying where he'll get the legal authority to do so, what courts would support that decision or why a price freeze wouldn't completely kill any hope of meeting the renewable energy goals, because to meet the lower rates Nova Scotia Power won't be able to afford higher-cost renewable power.

Baillie's comments on electricity are bizarre, unworkable and smell of political pandering, if not flat-out desperation.

Stupid partisanship

Other differences between the parties are tiny. Their proposed policies might shift spending on education and health care a few percentage points. The PCs would cut taxes more and sooner than the NDP promises to, while the Liberals say they'll wait awhile, but will still eventually cut taxes. All seem to be waiting for the public to push them to the right decisions around fracking. McNeil says he'll backtrack on the NDP's successful Collaborative Emergency Centres, but there's little doubt that he'll merely continue the same set of policies, albeit rebranded.

Potential voters are therefore left with three mostly middle-of-the-road parties, with minuscule differences between them. In this situation, we don't get much in the way of informed political debate, because there's not much to truly debate. Instead, we get a bizarre partisanship, where party apparatchiks act not out of principle but of blind loyalty for their own and utter disdain for the other parties and their apparatchiks. It's tribalism run amok, as with fans of professional sports teams. No one is simply a good person who holds a contrary view for how best to go about public policy, because really those other parties hold pretty much the same views. Rather, people associated with other parties are evil. They are anti-social sociopaths, kicking puppies and bent on destroying civilization.

That, anyway, is the impression one gets following the parties on social media. Actual government policies aren't much discussed on Twitter or Facebook, but the "sign wars" go on for weeks at a time: Party A is tearing down Party B's signs, blocking Party B's signs with their own, improperly placing signs on public property, landlords forcing tenants to have signs for parties they don't support. And each party accuses the other parties of this.

Then there was the absurd Twitter trolling allegations. This nonsense started when someone wrote a long blog post accusing NDP supporters of—horrors!—using their Twitter accounts to support the party. This morphed into a "The NDP is trolling Twitter!" meme, and then someone claiming to be representing the online group Anonymous posted an open letter saying the group was going to expose the NDP for, well, democracy, apparently. That led to a Chronicle-Herald article suggesting that the "Anonymous" letter actually came from a Liberal supporter, which in turn prompted the NDP to complain to the cops...who wisely ignored it all.

It's idiotic, but that's what happens when the parties have nothing of substance to debate. When they can't have high-minded partisanship of real differences, the parties rely on the stupid partisanship of asininity.

When all you've got is sign wars and worrying about Twitter posters, maybe you ought re-think your involvement in politics.

The politics of bullshit

There are huge issues that could be potentially discussed and debated. Ours would include poverty, climate change, transportation policy, usurious payday loan rates, a provincial bank, government-run car insurance and free college education. You probably have your own big ideas and concerns. But there seems to be tacit agreement between the three parties to keep the substantive issues forever outside acceptable discourse.

How'd we get here? How is it that the three parties are for the most part indistinguishable, that they don't address issues that matter, all while falling into stupid partisanship?

We have achieved a democratic system without meaning. Of course, politicians have always been cynical. What's changed in recent decades is that cynical electioneering has fully adopted the science of marketing. This was brought to a new level in the early 1990s when US presidential candidate Bill Clinton brought on advisor Dick Morris. Morris invented "triangulation," the strategy of giving up your own party's traditional principles and values and adopting those of your opponent in order to win election, and this sentence ought to make you think of Darrell Dexter.

After Clinton and Morris, came the strategic vote-counting and gerrymandering of George W. Bush's dirty trickster, Karl Rove. And then, throughout the late 1990s and the first decade of this century, the electoral strategists for the US Democratic and Republican parties travelled the world to teach political parties in country after country how to use the cynical electioneering perfected in the US.

Now, every political party in the western world relies first not on any deep-seated value set or principled view of the world, but rather on demographics, poll analyses, focus groups and marketing in order to put together winning campaigns.

And so we get the Harper government in Ottawa, with its cynical adoption of policies that appeal to suburbanites in the 905 area code: not funding for daycare and sports that everyone, even poor people who tend to vote NDP, can use, but tax deductions aimed solely at middle-class voters who can already afford daycare and child care. Then, with an iron grip on federal communication departments, the focus group-tested messaging is managed down to the placement of each comma.

The same in Nova Scotia. All three parties hire polling firms, and data-mine the results. They test potential party positions, and even the party slogans, on focus groups before making them public. Darrell Dexter doesn't want to be too closely identified with the climate change issue that he should rightly be proud of (at least on the electricity front), because evidently that position doesn't poll well among voters in rural areas he needs to pull off a victory.

The Liberals and PCs play these games too, and all parties have decided that pandering to the business classes that want a convention centre and the sports fans who want a stadium is part of the formula for electoral success.

Is it any wonder voter turnout is dropping like a lead balloon? Contrary to common wisdom, potential voters aren't stupid or apathetic. Rather, they're onto the game. People know that elections are just one big marketing gambit, like Coke trying to take some of Pepsi's market share at the Superstore. Every potential voter is just a demographic data point, to be appealed to, or not, depending on the value of the tiny wedge of society they represent. There's no broader vision. No concept of the greater good. No community. No shared future, no collective responsibilities. We are just atomized voters, to be manipulated, spun, appealed to or ignored and packed together, this way or that, in whatever arrangement best serves the goal—the only goal—of electoral victory.

With that understanding, potential voters have two reasonable reactions. They can not vote at all, because why bother if they aren't in the valued demographic? Or, if they perceive the party in power–the NDP in this case–has no core values beyond winning, voters can simply kick the party out, out of spite, which seems to be the direction this election is going. And should a Liberal government under Stephen McNeil likewise demonstrate no principled beliefs beyond electoral victory, it'll be their turn to be booted out in 2017. The voters, evidently, are sick of the bullshit.

Towards a better politics

The politics of bullshit won't be overcome with better politicians, because where will these politicians come from? The party systems will reject anyone who attempts to work outside the marketing machines.

Besides, the desire for a better leader is exactly the sort of simple solution the politics of bullshit appeals to. In recent decades the parties have become increasingly about the leader figurehead, and nothing at all about principles or values. The brand- and image-managed leader is just another marketing opportunity: hey, look at this shiny product that will satisfy your needs.

The politics of bullshit are a world-wide industry developed over three decades, with the help of billions of dollars and thousands of professionals. We shouldn't expect to be able to counter that with one new politician, or by casting a single vote. It will take hard work and a purposeful, shared resolve that itself will take many years to see even the beginning of success.

Where to start? Activism. If you don't want to be treated as a manipulatable data point, then don't act like one. Learn about an issue, or two, and join with people who aren't in your demographic, to build shared understandings that bridge communities the politics of bullshit try to divide.

Speak to broad visions and community- wide values and responsibilities. These collective sensibilities are anathema to the politics of bullshit, and so are ignored by parties looking to pack together demographic slices. But if politics are about anything meaningful, they should be about shared concerns. What should we do about climate change? How can we best address poverty? What does a collective quality of life look like?

The three main parties have lost their way, but even the fringe parties can't transcend the bullshit. The Nova Scotia Green Party seems forever embroiled in intra-party personality conflicts, and has failed to build a shared party value system, while the one-man Atlantica Party is all about the one man's political ambition.

Here's a suggestion for a party or a group within a party that wants to honestly transcend the politics of bullshit: Aim to lose. Let the other parties play the demographic games, while you establish yourself as people of principle, willing to go to electoral defeat rather than compromise your values. Maybe you'll never win election. But an honest principle held by a sincere group out of power will do more good in the world than any market-tested finger-to-the-wind principle adopted by a party in power. Let the parties of bullshit triangulate towards what's right. Why are you in this, anyway? To win? Or to change the world?

Above all, we should all demand better of our politicians and our parties. Make them talk about things that matter. Tell them to stop trying to divide us, and urge them to speak to our collective concerns.

This is the point where we're supposed to leave readers with an uplifting thought, to inspire hope. But it's entirely possible the politics of bullshit are insurmountable. Still, it's better to fight the good fight, to have aspirations of a better politics, than to not fight at all and passively accept the politics of bullshit. In the end, this is an existential issue, and each election is a battle in the war for our collective souls. a

Tim Bousquet is news editor at The Coast.

After the election - What Happens to the leaders?

Darrell Dexter
It’s hard to see how Dexter can lose his majority government and remain party leader. There’s surprisingly little talk of this, at least publicly, yet, and there’s no obvious replacement in the wings. But unless he scores big on election day, expect Dexter to resign as leader on October 9, with an interim leader appointed soon after. We predict that, after an appropriate wait for appearance’s sake, Dexter will join the Board of Directors at Emera.

Stephen McNeil
Even if he doesn’t get to form a government, McNeil is already the big winner in this election for having run such a successful campaign. He’s secure as Liberal leader at least until the next election.

Jamie Baillie
If he can’t match Rodney MacDonald’s 10-seat total, it’s back to the Halifax Curling Club for Baillie.

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