Howard Epstein’s “Rise Again: Nova Scotia’s NDP on the Rocks” – A Review
Howard Epstein’s Rise Again: Nova Scotia’s NDP on the Rocks is part idiosyncratic political memoir and part bitter philippic from someone who was both in the Nova Scotia government from 2009 until 2013, in the sense that he was an MLA of the governing party, but also never really part of the government during the Dexter years due to his exclusion from cabinet – something that clearly still rankles Mr. Epstein, despite his frequent assertions to the contrary.
He makes a point of noting very early on, for example, that “of the small group of six NDP MLAs first elected together in 1998 and then re-elected in each subsequent election, I was the only one not given a portfolio.” (p. 8) Yet while he admits that he was “unhappy” and “profoundly disappointed” by the NDP government, he maintains that this has “nothing to do with my own fate, and everything to do with the policy decisions made.” (pp. 9 – 10)
Given that one of the most recognizable traits of your average politician is their talent for self-justification, it is probably true on some existential level that Mr. Epstein actually believes that his motives in writing this book are purely noble. And there is plenty in the book that historians will find useful in terms of understanding the various strands of political opinion in Nova Scotia at the beginning of the 21st century. For an objective reader, however, it is impossible to accept Mr. Epstein’s claim that his blistering critique of the NDP government in which he served is not based to a great degree on his own personal anger at being excluded from the inner circle of cabinet, largely because he does it so often (file this under: protest too much, methinks he doth).
Mr. Epstein comes across as someone who cannot help but conflate what is good for the party (and by implication the Province) with what is good for him, and vice versa. There is a “my way or the highway” hubris at work here, masquerading as ideological purity, that is fascinating as a psychological study if nothing else… and it sabotages the entire book just as it did Mr. Epstein’s political career.
In terms of his recollections from his time in government, Mr. Epstein goes to great lengths throughout the book to paint most of his colleagues as sell-outs to the “true” progressive cause, people who were all too eager to make deals with the same old corporate and bureaucratic devils rather than push truly transformative change for Nova Scotia.
Darrell Dexter comes in for the harshest criticism. Mr. Epstein dismisses the man who led the NDP to their first government east of Ontario as someone who would have been “best placed as a cabinet minister and not as premier.” (p. 64) When he writes that Mr. Dexter “should have rowed rather than steered,” one cannot help but get the impression that Mr. Epstein thinks it all would have gone better if only he himself had been in charge. (p. 64)
The two other primary targets of Mr. Epstein’s scorn are Maureen MacDonald and Graham Steele. As the NDP’s first Finance Minister, Mr. Steele charted the course of fiscal responsibility that Epstein considers the poison that infected the government and led it away from “core” NDP principles. There is very much a feeling left by Mr. Epstein throughout the book that Mr. Steele was a technocrat without a true passion for social democracy. “He was never,” one can imagine Mr. Epstein thinking, “really one of us.”
As for Ms. MacDonald, a dedicated and long-time NDP MLA whose progressive credentials are impeccable by any standard, Mr. Epstein admits that she served ably as minister for the difficult portfolios of Health and Finance, and he says he admires her, but then he sticks the knife right between her shoulder blades.
“One of the most disappointing features of the Dexter government,” he writes, “was the extent to which Maureen MacDonald bought into his agenda… Somewhere along the line she stopped being a critical presence and decided that loyalty to the leader and the inner circle was more important than what actually got accomplished.” (p. 131)
With friends like Howard Epstein, Ms. MacDonald, Mr. Steele, and Mr. Dexter could be forgiven for wondering who needs enemies.
Making matters worse for the reader, Mr. Epstein lumbers along on his jeremiad with the literary aplomb of a lawyer drafting a particularly dull brief. There are some interesting insights into what happened during the NDP government sprinkled throughout, but they are oases in the desert that is Mr. Epstein’s turgid and not terribly focused prose. This is a book that definitely could have used a more vigorous editor (on the plus side, it is worth pointing out that the book has a useful and fairly extensive index, and the references in the endnotes are good as well).
But even a dull brief can be effective if it contains a compelling case. Unfortunately for Mr. Epstein, it is here, where it really matters, that he fails completely, his analysis of events undermined at every turn by his inability to look beyond his own narrow political parochialism.
His basic thesis runs like this: The NDP were elected in 2009 as change agents by a population that wanted them to enact a left-wing agenda immediately, and they were defeated in 2013 largely because they governed in a manner and with policies no different than their Liberal and Progressive Conservative predecessors.
“Fundamental to understanding why we lost in 2013,” writes Mr. Epstein early on, “is a correct understanding of why we won in 2009. The party leadership was and remains convinced that the win came through centrism. But that is not so. A strong part of the win came from having held out the promise of being different. The failure to act as a Government in the ways suggested when we were in Opposition proved fatal.” (p. 21)
What actually happened was quite different. By 2009, the Progressive Conservatives had been in power for a decade, and Rodney MacDonald had proved to be a somewhat underwhelming choice as Premier. The Liberal Party was still very much in third place, with an untested leader in Stephen McNeil who was more concerned with rebuilding the party, particularly its finances, than trying to win the election. Having almost won the 2006 election under Mr. Dexter, the NDP was the default choice for people looking to turf the Tories… and there were enough of those people, when combined with the NDP’s base, to vault the NDP into power.
In short, Nova Scotians were ready to give the NDP a chance on the grounds that they were better than the alternatives at hand, but it was hardly a resounding endorsement for the direction Mr. Epstein advocates. Without the commitment by the party to a moderate platform, where change would be managed in an incremental nature, at least at first, the NDP would never have won their 2009 majority.
Mr. Dexter understood that reality, as did Mr. Steele, Ms. MacDonald, and the other NDP MLAs who formed the Cabinet (and it’s worth remembering what a substantial and talented cabinet that was, particularly when contrasted with the hapless group of Liberal ministers who succeeded them). Mr. Epstein did not, which is what really explains why he was never included in the “inner circle.” His read of the Province is very much rooted in his own Manichean view of the world, but his colleagues understood the actual reality of electoral politics in Nova Scotia far better.
Nova Scotians have proven time and time again that they are moderates to the core. Change comes slowly, and if one wants to govern effectively, and bring about real change over time to not only individual policies but to the entire political culture, one has to understand these realities and manage expectations.
As the old saying goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day.
Besides, it’s not as if the NDP government wasn’t progressive. Mr. Epstein spends a great deal of time concentrating on the small number of what he sees as the significant failures by the government, which are invariably those areas where the NDP government deviated from Mr. Epstein’s views. But in doing so, he glosses over or completely ignores many of the very real progressive successes of the government.
Arts and culture policy is the perfect example. Mr. Epstein shows little interest in it, relegating it to a single page in his book (p. 270), and then only referencing the re-establishment of the Nova Scotia Arts Council. Mr. Epstein completely ignores the accomplishments of the NDP government with respect to the broader creative economy. The establishment of Film and Creative Industries Nova Scotia and the Creative Nova Scotia Leadership Council were transformative measures, designed to both centralize program delivery in the creative economy and to give a greater voice in policy making to artists themselves. It was progressive governance at its best, creating partnerships between government and the private sector, and within the private sector itself promoting synergies between different elements of the creative economy, a change that was long overdue.
I know just how difficult this was to achieve because I was the first civil servant to really look into the idea of a central agency for creative economy administration whilst I was the Program Administrator at the Nova Scotia Film Development Corporation in 1998 and 1999. I met great resistance from both the film and music sectors to the very idea of combining the administration of their programs into one agency, and we dropped the matter. It is to the NDP government’s great credit that they finally brought about these logical changes despite concerns by industry stakeholders who evinced an unwillingness to alter the status quo. This was done to the benefit of all concerned. The implementation of the Status of the Artist Act was another notable move forward in this important area of policy-making.
These were not the actions of a government that was no different than the Liberals who succeeded them, who have since gotten rid of FCINS and implemented cuts that have devastated the film and television industry; these were the actions of a government committed to change. While the creative economy was one of the most notable progressive-oriented successes of the NDP government, there were many others, contrary to what Mr. Epstein would have you believe.
So if the NDP was a progressive government that delivered change at a rate that was in tune with the overall approach Nova Scotians expected, why were they defeated in 2013 after only one term? It is here that I think Mr. Epstein gets at least part of the equation right. He points to a government that centralized too much power in the Premier’s office, that was poor at communicating its vision to Nova Scotians, and that was even poorer at acknowledging those mistakes that it did make. That is a surefire recipe for electoral defeat. But that is a question of practice, and not an issue of fundamental principles.
On the subject of principles, Mr. Epstein is also more than a little hypocritical in his condemnation of his peers. After all, he could have resigned from the NDP caucus and sat as an independent at any time if he thought they were on the wrong track and that his views were being ignored. That kind of action can be a powerful statement… but he did not take that course, and thus failed to take a principled stand that could have made a difference. One cannot help but conclude that he was still holding out hope of an appointment to Cabinet.
He also demonstrates throughout the book that he was just as much a realpolitik type of politician as everyone else. This is particularly the case when he describes the 2000 NDP leadership convention. When his candidate was knocked out after the first ballot, he backed Helen MacDonald over Kevin Deveaux, not on policy grounds, which would have been understandable, but because “it would likely be easier to depose Helen than Kevin” after an almost certain defeat in the next general election. (p. 57) This is positively Nixonian in the nature of its base political calculation.
In Rise Again, Mr. Epstein presents a picture of an NDP government that sold out its principles in order to gain power. “The NDP has been corrupted,” he concludes, “through an internal takeover by those who see themselves as professional career politicians and their staff whose main consideration is their own jobs.” (p. 12) In doing so, he has done a fundamental disservice to the truth. He also does a grave disservice to the men and women in a first-time government who faced a political culture in Nova Scotia that had calcified over decades, particularly in the upper echelons of the civil service, and still managed to effect positive change for Nova Scotians.
Mr. Epstein clearly disagrees. “I find it hard to see any member of the Dexter cabinet as a credible candidate for the next party leader,” he proclaims towards the end of the book (p. 316), dismissing both the leadership of the only NDP government in Nova Scotia’s history and all of the people within the party (and many outside it) who thought that government was on the right track.
Mr. Epstein is entitled to his opinion, of course, but he is on the wrong side of history. The NDP may rise again, but not by following the backward-looking course that Mr. Epstein would chart. The vision he offers is one rooted in the ideological battles of the 20th century, and not the realities and the very exciting possibilities of what is increasingly emerging as a post-ideological 21st century, where no-one has a monopoly on good ideas. In a no doubt unintended irony, this self-defined champion of “true” progressive values actually emerges from Rise Again as the most reactionary of all the former members of the NDP government. He is looking backward, with a fair degree of bitterness, as opposed to forward with the kind of hope and optimism and spirit of cooperation that Nova Scotians need now more than ever.
Paul Andrew Kimball
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10 thoughts on “Howard Epstein’s “Rise Again: Nova Scotia’s NDP on the Rocks” – A Review”
Paul that is the best takedown of the current NDP leadership without ever once mentioning them that you could have written. Well played!
Astute as usual! Thanks for articulating this so incisively and succinctly.
All across Canada, certainly in Nova Scotia the NDP face a real dilemma.
If they are seen as a hard left socialist party, their rivals easily misrepresent them as “tax-and-spend-socialists” – intending to turn government into something like the USSR or East Germany, but that keeps the ideologically pure members (e.g. the LEAP advocates) happy. Neither Federally nor in NS has the NDP succeeded in educating voters about how social democracy might work for them and why Scandinavian countries that have governed with it generally to the UN’s Human Development Index.
Unfortunately, in Canada leftists might represent 10-15% of the total vote, and that will not win opposition much less minority much less majority government. So Layton, Dexter and Mulcair all tried to quietly extend their reach from the left to the centre, attempting to present a progressive but also a *pragmatic* party that might attract another 20-25% of uncommitted voters. The danger in this is that it causes howls of rage from the hard-line leftists that the party is selling its soul (and its ideology) for power. Then the 10-15% party ‘base’ upon which the Leader hoped to build begins to erode as these folks feel betrayed and stay home rather that work for anything less than an ideologically perfect NDP.
Yet my experience on the doorstep has been that most people are not especially interested in ideology. Sure you get the odd staunch social conservative or socialist but most are just looking for a better standard of living, lower taxes, more jobs to keep their kids from leaving, better access to a more responsive public health care, better schools, a cleaner environment etc. – very pragmatic concerns.
Any party looking to govern here must find a way to meet those first. Once they have shown they are they can do this reasonably well and so shouldn’t be turfed out, then they can slowly extend policy to more progressive agendas, gently taking the hands of the voting public and leading them to ideas they don’t understand at present but may come to appreciate very much. Like Medicare.
Howard Epstein is a very smart guy. So is Howard Steele. The two of them made a sensational pair as they flogged their books a years or so back at The Company House. The NDP desperately needs smart people. Hope they realize their mistake and invite their members in Halifax Needham to consider you as their NDP candidate. There may not be much time left.
I’ll drop you a line asap – just swamped these past few days. But just so you know, I resigned my membership in the NS NDP today. https://goo.gl/9Wr3Ty
Interesting review. You seem to exhibit the very faults you accuse Howard of. Although you make some relevant points mostly the review is full of chips left over from a hatchet job. It is true that the “Dexter Government” was certainly better and more effective than the one we have now. But the operated well below expectation and the was wide spread disaffection within the party well before the election and defeat. To say that the NDP was elected with a broad expectation that they would be different suggest you must have been living on another planet at the time. Excuse me I think I hear the sound of an angry hatchet.
Thank you, Paul. I deeply admire your attitude and join you in moving “forward with the kind of hope and optimism and spirit of cooperation that Nova Scotians need now more than ever.” Amen.
First off: full disclosure: I am the editor and publisher of Rise Again: Nova Scotia’s NDP on the Rocks, Howard Epstein’s political memoir.
Secondly, I invite any reader to read Rise Again for themselves and see if they reach any of the same conclusions contained in this review.
Speaking of philippics and jeremiads, it’s unfortunate that this article contains rather little discussion of what the book is about – the past, present and future of the NDP in Nova Scotia and a discussion of the province’s more recent political history and the policies that have determined its evolution over the past several decades – and mostly attacks Mr. Epstein with various accusations and imaginings. Kimball devotes much in his review to ascribing “self-justification”, hubris”, “Manichean views”, “hypocrisy,” “bitterness”, a masquerade of “ideological purity” and imaginations of leadership aspirations to Epstein’s political career.
For example, “one cannot help but get the impression that Mr. Epstein thinks it all would have gone better if only he himself had been in charge;” this despite Epstein’s clear disavowal, that “I was never interested in the party leadership. … I never ran for leadership on the occasions when there was a vacancy, or even took steps to organize a leadership campaign. When asked I was always clear that I was not interested.” (pp. 11) The facts, Epstein’s political work, as well as his explicit testimony in this book, speak for themselves. It’s a shame to waste time pursuing such counterfactuals.
Kimball claims that Epstein “glosses over or completely ignores many of the very real progressive successes of the government.” In fact, there is an entire chapter (14: Real Accomplishments) devoted to precisely this (as well as discussion in many other places in the book). Chapter 14 includes discussions of the Dexter Government’s response to the H1N1 Virus, the development of the Collaborative Emergency Centers (CEC), Public Sector negotiations, First Contract Arbitration, the creation of the United Labour Board, updates to the Environmental Goals and Sustainability Act (EGSPA), the increases in the percentage of Nova Scotia’s protected landmass, the development of renewable energy, the stimulus effect of capital spending by the province, improvements in the program of highway paving, improvements to the school closure process, the moratorium on oil exploration drilling on Georges Bank, a ban on uranium mining, and the re-establishment of an independent arts council.
The latter (cultural policy) is the only one mentioned by Kimball in his review (allowing him the opportunity of a discussion of his own involvement in the creative economy sector). This could lead one to think that Epstein “glosses over or completely ignores many of the very real progressive successes of the government” – which is completely incorrect.
Kimball argues that Epstein could have resigned from the NDP, as indeed he could have. In the book Epstein discusses this prospect (pp. 11-12, and 300-303) and his carefully considered reasons for staying in the NDP and the caucus. One can agree with them or not, but it’s incorrect to charge him with “hypocrisy” and conclude, as Kimball does that, “One cannot help but conclude that he was still holding out hope of an appointment to Cabinet.” There was no indication that the Dexter government was ever going to be prepared to offer Epstein a cabinet post, nor did Epstein hold out any such hope.
Kimball concludes with a final philippic on what he considers to be the “bitter,” “backward-looking,” and “reactionary” views of Epstein, apparently rooted in the “ideological battles of the 20th century” and not grounded in what he terms “a post-ideological 21st century.”
Kimball is certainly entitled to his views, but I would suggest that any politically astute person looking at the world in the 21st century and the current ravages of neoliberalism on the social, political, economic, and environmental fabric of the globe, as well as resurgent right-wing extremism and totalitarian and even neo-fascist movements, parties, and inclinations in many quarters of the world, would regard the notion of “a post-ideological 21st century” as ludicrous. If ever the pressing imperatives of climate change, economic inequality, racism, xenophobia, sexism, and many other areas require a politic rooted in social democratic principles, it is now. Values, such as social-democratic ones, direct policies and actions. Jettisoning even the conception of them leads to a politics utterly untethered in values – not a desirable state of affairs.
Finally, although Kimball considers himself “post-ideological” he neglects to mention in the review that he has recently resigned from the NDP (after apparently having been rejected as a potential candidate by them) and is instead seeking the Progressive Conservative nomination in the riding of Halifax Needham. It is perfectly appropriate, of course, for him to do all of the above, but it is also appropriate to disclose these facts in an article that is so overtly political in its nature.
Thanks for the input, Christopher. What I find amazing is how many New Democrats shared the review and / or wrote me agreeing with it. Of course, everyone’s mileage will vary. As for my own views, they’re hardly a secret, and my reasons for resigning from the NDP were made public, so that’s hardly a secret, either.
All the best,
Doubtless some New Democrats do. In the 1.5 years since the book was published I’m certain that I have heard from many more who have purchased the book, read it, and have found many things to like about it. It has stimulated a number of excellent discussions on the politics of Nova Scotia, not least that organized by the Springtide Collective.
If you read the many articles, interviews, and reviews of the book in in allNovaScotia.com, The Chronicle Herald, the Halifax Examiner, the Coast, Metro, King County Register, Rabble.ca, CBC radio & TV, CTV, News 95.7 and elsewhere (URL below) you will find that none of the reviewers or interviewers took your positions on virtually any of the points you made.
Also unaddressed is why you didn’t make a disclosure of your political position in the review. I’ve no idea why your bid for running as an NDP candidate in Halifax Needham may have been “prohibited” (if this was what occurred), but if so, this would constitute a clear conflict that should – at a minimum – be declared. Indeed, in my view someone who is running as a candidate for a rival political party is not in a position to write an unbiased review at all. Any reasonable person would perceive this as a conflict of interest.
You are, of course, absolutely entitled to hold and express whatever critical views you wish of Howard Epstein and his politics. However, a core journalistic principle is that reviewers should approach their subjects with impartiality, and if real or perceived conflicts exist these must be fully declared.
N.B. As author of the index, and editor of the references, I do thank you for your positive mention of these. It’s seldom indeed that reviews take notice of such technical elements of a publication.
For the record Paul wrote this review several months ago in the earliest days of the website, at which time he was an NDP member with no ideas of running for any office. We took it and a few other unrelated pieces offline as part of a bit of housecleaning a couple of weeks later. This was the last one to be reposted, after Paul had made a couple of small changes (which actually made the review a bit less negative) and then we finally reposted it – prior to Paul running for the PC nomination. But yes, it was reposted after he had been badly treated by the NDP leadership (which even Gary Burrill belatedly admitted when it became politically necessary to do so).
As for the review itself, it’s perfectly above board and typical of many editorial reviews of political memoirs. I presume that if Mr. Epstein can dish it out – which he certainly does in his book – then he can take it too. Just be thankful it was Paul who wrote the review, because I would have been even less kind.
And now, all sides having had their full say, comments are closed.