Darrell Dexter is blaming his election loss on Nova Scotians who misread or refused to believe what his government was trying to achieve, and the media for misinterpreting his message.
In a candid interview with The Globe and Mail, his only interview since his history-making loss, Mr. Dexter defended his record as a premier running an activist government. The NDP was the first party in 131 years in Nova Scotia that was not re-elected to a second term.
Taking office with a majority in 2009 – the first NDP government in the province’s history – he and his team had to deal with a massive deficit. The 2008 recession, coupled with the huge reduction in oil and gas royalties in the province, meant no new programs and a lot of fiscal pain. Production declined at the Sable natural gas project, which at its peak in 2008-09 brought in $452-million in revenues for the province. Low prices for natural gas meant companies weren’t interested in exploring.
His government managed to balance the budget (although the new Liberal government says it doesn’t believe the numbers), helped to win the $25-billion federal shipbuilding contract and provided a new vision for energy in the province.
“There is a point at which you could say … what more do you have to do? What more do you have to do in order to demonstrate, if not exceptional management skills, a least acceptable management skills and a certain level of vision?”
Mr. Dexter, who lost his own seat, is at times both frustrated by and curious about the outcome.
“There was a certain suspended sense of belief,” he said. “We didn’t have angry mobs following around the campaign. In fact, of all of the events I did through the campaign … not once did a protester ever appear.”
With a week of hindsight, the 56-year-old politician believes there was no single issue that brought down his government.
“I think at this point you get this phenomenon where people, where they act individually, and the result happens collectively,” he said. “… that’s part of the unpredictable nature of politics.”
He said he “knew people were upset about some things” but was surprised by the way they interpreted his government’s actions.
On a doorstep in his riding, for example, he heard from a resident concerned with changes his government made to make the public service pension more secure, including restricting cost-of-living increases and changing survivor benefits.
“Well, people were angry about that,” he said. “It came as a surprise to me because we were protecting their pension … But they just felt, regardless of the position of the plan, they should just be paid … and I don’t really know how to deal with that.”
He also said some Nova Scotians refused to believe the winning of the shipbuilding contract was an economic boost for the province. He believes that’s because they and the media didn’t understand why the province gave a $304-million loan to the already profitable Irving Shipbuilding after it had won the $25-billion federal government contract.
Only $44-million of the loan has be to repaid and that became a flashpoint. Mr. Dexter says that the loan was critical to winning the bid because of the way the federal government structured the terms. He said there is $2.2-billion in benefits to the government through interest.
“It seems to this day like a no-brainer,” he said. “What government in its right mind would not do that when the returns are so great?”
Mr. Dexter’s finance minister, Maureen MacDonald, nearly lost the riding where the ship yard is located. “She was canvassing in the streets that overlooked the ship yard and people would say that’s a waste of money because those ships are never going to be built and … those people could look out their doors and see the cranes.”
“When there is a level of disbelief in something that is actually happening, whose job is it to explain this?” he asked. “Certainly it is ours and we did that but I think there is a certain level of responsibility in the wider community to make that happen.”
He points to business and the media for clouding the issue and says that when he explained issues to voters, “95 per cent of reasonable” people would understand what he was trying to do.
For now, he isn’t planning on making any headlines. He isn’t saying if he’ll step aside as leader; he wants to talk to his party. But he has some telling advice for his colleagues: “When you get into political life, just as sure as you embark on victory, some day you will lose. So, at the end of it all you have to be satisfied with the decisions you make and the things that you do.”
He said he doesn’t have a single regret – that to regret would be to cheapen his accomplishments.
“I am completely satisfied with the decisions I made. I made them because I believed they were in the best interests of my province. I’ll live with that.”