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Jeffrey Simpson (Brigitte Bouvier For The Globe and Mail)

Jeffrey Simpson

(Brigitte Bouvier For The Globe and Mail)

JEFFREY SIMPSON

The NDP and Liberals are trading places Add to ...

Those who were there, that night in Halifax in 2009, couldn’t help but smile.

Here was a party, the New Democrats, that had never held power east of Ontario. The party had been building in Nova Scotia, slowly, methodically, especially around Halifax and Dartmouth, both federally and provincially.

And now, with the friendly, non-threatening Darrell Dexter at the helm, power was theirs at last. In the hotel ballroom that night, Mr. Dexter struck the right tone of modesty and purpose while his supporters exulted, as they had every right to do, in the wonder of it all.

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If history were a guide, the New Democrats would be in for at least two terms, since Nova Scotians hadn’t booted out any party after just one term in more than 130 years.

Hadn’t, that is, until this week, when they decisively gave Mr. Dexter’s party the boot. The NDP’s share of the popular vote fell from 45 to 27 per cent, Mr. Dexter lost his seat and the party tumbled from first to third place in the legislature. Humiliating would be the proper description.

The defeat leaves the New Democrats governing just one province, Manitoba. Worse, it’s a straw in the wind of what the party dreads: that the Liberal brand is coming back in parts of Canada where it has been strong before – so that more and more Canadians will see the Liberals, rather than the New Democrats, as the serious alternative to Stephen Harper’s Conservatives.

That’s obviously what the Conservatives think, given that they spend much more time and money attacking Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau than New Democrat Tom Mulcair. The NDP itself also seems fixated on the Trudeau phenomenon.

In British Columbia, where the party lost an election it had expected to win, much internal post-election analysis focused on the campaign’s errors. But in Nova Scotia, the campaign didn’t matter. What counted was how the NDP had governed, and by a wide margin, Nova Scotians had already given Mr. Dexter’s team the thumbs-down long before the campaign began.

Painful postmortems will happen, but here’s an old lesson the New Democrats forgot: Don’t promise what you cannot deliver. Don’t promise to not raise taxes and not cut spending, and then do both. Opposition parties can defeat themselves even before they get elected by boxing themselves in to unrealistic promises, which is what happened in Nova Scotia, among other things.

Under Stephen McNeil, the Liberals won handily and will now confront the same sluggish economy that confounded the New Democrats. Like neighbouring New Brunswick, Nova Scotia faces some endemic problems that seem beyond the capacity of any government to solve: slow growth, high rural unemployment, out-migration of people. (On Thursday, BlackBerry announced the coming closure of its Halifax office, with the loss of perhaps 350 jobs.) Mr. McNeil promised very little during the campaign, implicit recognition that his margin for action will be quite constrained.

From a wider perspective, Mr. McNeil’s victory is part of the federal and provincial restoration of the Liberal brand across Atlantic Canada. The region is hardly representative of the entire country, but Liberals can take some comfort from what’s been happening and what it might portend.

A few years ago, the Liberals were out of office provincially in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Newfoundland, although they did hold Prince Edward Island. In the 2011 federal election, they won the most seats of any party in Newfoundland and PEI, but did less well in larger Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

Now, however, the Liberals are soaring throughout the region. They steamrollered to victory in the Nova Scotia election. They are way ahead in polls in New Brunswick, where an election is expected next year. And they lead in polls in Newfoundland, far ahead of the incumbent Conservatives and modestly in front of the second-place but slumping NDP.

Federally, the Liberals won the Labrador by-election against the incumbent Conservatives. They lead handily in all the regional polls of federal voting intentions. In other words, it’s a far cry from where they were not long ago.

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