So there you have it, Nova Scotia: Less than one-fifth of the province’s entire population just determined who’s going to lead you, and for how long.
No, that’s not an exaggeration. I truly wish it was. But the numbers, as dispiriting as they are, don’t lie.
To recap: Stephen McNeil’s Liberals were re-elected with a razor-thin majority of 27 seats last week, and did so by taking 39.47 per cent of the popular vote. (That same percentage also got John Hamm a 30-seat Tory majority in 1999, but only handed Hamm’s successor, Rodney MacDonald, a 23-seat minority government in 2006.)
Apart from the number of close riding results this particular election generated, including three genuine horse races in the Strait area, I’ll remember this election night for the muted response it seemed to generate from the public in general and even from the headquarters of the victorious governing party.
Unlike the 2013 election, which saw the Liberals form government in Nova Scotia for the first time in 14 years, the scene at McNeil’s so-called victory party in Bridgetown was a more sober affair, as worried Grits saw two cabinet ministers lose their seats and wondered if they’d finish the night in a minority position, or perhaps fall out of power entirely.
It was hardly the champagne-corking night you’d associate with someone who had pulled off the improbable feat of winning consecutive majorities for the first time since John Buchanan’s Tories won their fourth, in 1988. The following day, the premier was delivering “message received” sound bites to reporters at Province House and trying to strike a more conciliatory tone about issues such as health care delivery, which arguably became the ballot question on May 30, particularly in areas such as Cape Breton.
Across the province, no one was exactly dancing in the streets about the renewed Liberal mandate. We were also coming to terms with the eerie reality that nearly half the electorate was so angry, disillusioned, or indifferent about the available choices and/or the election process in general that they threw up their hands and didn’t vote at all.
Out of 748,663 eligible voters, only 403,336 cast a ballot. That adds up to a Nova Scotia voter turnout of 53.88 per cent, which is a further decline from the roughly 59 per cent turnout in the previous two provincial votes.
Crunch the numbers a little further, and you’ll discover that the Liberals only required 21.2 per cent of the entire electorate – or 159,213 people – to earn another four years in office. Line up those figures with Nova Scotia’s entire population, and we discover that only 17.2 per cent of provincial residents just picked our next government.
Seriously – 17.2 per cent? Is anybody happy with the idea of a government elected by 17.2 per cent of all Nova Scotians? Is anybody in the Liberal government itself happy with that idea?
Now, I’m not immune to the concept that getting out the vote gets tougher every year in different parts of North America. Most of us remember that 45 per cent of Americans opted out of last year’s tumultuous presidential election. So, even though he finished behind Hillary Clinton in the popular vote, Donald Trump still rode to victory on the votes of roughly 14.4 per cent of the entire American electorate.
While most comparisons between McNeil and Trump strike me as childish and cartoonish, the two leaders do have one common thread: They were put in power by a shockingly small portion of their respective voters.
All of this is astounding to me because I honestly thought the issues firing up most Nova Scotians in this election campaign and the six months preceding it – legislated contracts for the province’s teachers, our hemorrhaging health care system and pronounced doctor departures, and cuts to nursing homes – might be enough to spark more of us to get out to the polls and make our voices heard.
Sadly, folks, we all wear this one. All party leaders and candidates wear it, even those in the four Strait area ridings, where turnouts ranged from a low of 58 per cent in Guysborough-Eastern Shore-Tracadie to a high of just under 70 per cent in the traditionally-active constituency of Cape Breton-Richmond.
Actual voters also wear it by not actively engaging their friends and neighbours in the democratic process.
Most of all, those of you who chose to abandon your most effective means of registering satisfaction or concern with your elected officials wear this for throwing it away.
Small wonder that we now have a House of Assembly ruled by a “silent majority” – aided and abetted by the silent but frustrating wave of indifference that washed over Nova Scotia at the end of May.