I had a flashback while scrutineering the vote count Monday night in the basement of the South End Baptist Church in Dartmouth. As the DRO intoned the name “Darren Fisher” many too many times for my liking, there were echoes of a similar night taking place almost 22 years ago in the gym at nearby Hawthorn elementary school. That night, Oct. 25, 1993, was even more excruciating. My candidate and friend Marty Zeleneitz received fewer votes in 1993 then my candidate and friend Robert Chisholm collected on Monday. However, when Monday’s cloistered counting process was done and contact renewed with the outside world, it looked like the overall result would be the same. Just as in 1993, the Liberal sweep of seats in the Atlantic provinces would herald a Liberal majority in Ottawa, while dashing the hopes of New Democrats across the country.
As we saw the losses of Robert Chisholm, Peter Stoffer, Megan Leslie and Jack Harris down here matched by the defeat of NDP stalwarts like Paul Dewar and Peggy Nash in Ontario there were more flashbacks to 1993. In that election the federal NDP caucus went from 44 seats to nine as the political fates handed many outstanding, hard-working MPs their walking papers. As with Dartmouth, the 2015 result across the country was not quite as severe as 1993. The NDP lost over 50 seats, but retained 44. The party’s popular vote this time dropped 27% from 2011, compared with an epic 65% between 1988 and 1993.
If history continues to repeat itself, the next few years could see a lot of Nova Scotians and Atlantic Canadians regretting their embrace of the Liberals. After the near sweep of 1993 (the Progressive Conservatives held onto one seat in New Brunswick) the 31-strong Atlantic contingent in the House of Commons proved itself unwilling or unable to stop the Ontario-dominated Chretien-Martin government’s veer to the right – a shift marked by cuts to UI, transfer payments and public sector jobs. Some Liberals paid a steep price for their quiescence, with Mary Clancy, David Dingwall and Geoff Regan among the 11 Liberal MPs from Nova Scotia and 20 across the region who lost their seats to NDP and (Progressive) Conservative candidates in the 1997 election.
The 1997 result alone may be enough of a precautionary tale to prevent a re-run of the 1993 to 1997 scenario, and there are several other factors that should work to keep the Liberals from betraying the trust placed in them by Atlantic Canadians. First off, the New Democrats are much stronger than they were in 1993 and a threat to win back the seats they lost on Monday.
Secondly, the make-up of the national Liberal caucus is different. In 1993, Chretien needed only three votes from Atlantic MPs to maintain his majority. Put another way, to protest the cuts 28 of them could have jumped to sit in opposition without sinking the Liberal ship. This time, the Atlantic members would have a bit more clout – it would take the departure of only half of them to leave Trudeau without a majority.
Thirdly, Ontario MPs are numerically less dominant in 2015 than they were in 1993. With the Liberals winning all but one seat in the province in 1993, the 98 MPs from Ontario made up 55% of the Liberal caucus. This time, the 79 MPs from Ontario account for 43% of the Liberal caucus, while MPs from the less wealthy provinces – Atlantic, Quebec and Manitoba – account for exactly the same number. Throw in the three Liberal MPs from the transfer-dependent territories and you have a caucus majority of MPs whose political fortunes could be adversely affected by the kind of austerity agenda we saw post-1993.
A final factor is that the Trudeau Liberals are famously in favour of running deficits. Unless the economy goes south and they get panicked into making the sort of cuts that dominated the first term of the Chretien-Martin crowd, it is more likely that this region has more to fear through sins of omission. By that I mean a continuation of the federal unwillingness to address the flaws in the health care and equalization funding formulae. As noted in my Oct. 4 post, Trudeau failed to commit during the campaign to helping provincial governments that have already lost hundreds of millions of dollars and stand to lose much more from the transfer changes imposed by the Harper regime. With Liberal premiers in the Maritimes seemingly more interested in fighting against public sector unions rather than for a fairer system of transfers we can only hope that this Red Tide of Liberal MPs is more effective than the one that swept in 22 years ago.