As a former leader of the NDP in Nova Scotia, he’s the only one of nine federal leadership candidates who has direct experience riding the electoral roller coaster.
It wasn’t an entirely smooth ride but he says he’s learned some valuable lessons from that experience which could help the federal party navigate its way from official Opposition to government.
“My experience in Nova Scotia, I know that these kinds of breakthroughs are really exciting but you’ve got to pay attention because it can be as fleeting as it comes fast,” Chisholm told The Canadian Press in a wide-ranging interview.
“There’s a lot of stuff you have to do in order to keep yourself grounded, in order to keep people focused and moving in the right direction. And I feel like I’ve been there. I have that experience.”
Under Chisholm’s leadership, the Nova Scotia NDP vaulted from two to a record 19 seats in 1998, actually tied with the Liberals who formed a minority government propped up by the third-place Progressive Conservatives.
Knowing they could be plunged into another election at any time, he said his party worked frantically to communicate a reasonable message and prove to voters that “we don’t have horns, that it wasn’t a mistake to vote for us.”
When the Liberal government fell 15 months later, the NDP appeared headed to victory. However, the party was hurt by a mid-campaign revelation that Chisholm had not been upfront about having been convicted of drunk driving as a teenager.
The NDP ended up dropping to 11 seats, although it retained some 30 per cent of the popular vote, down only slightly from the previous election.
“I know a lot of people in the party had pretty high expectations and that was tough,” Chisholm acknowledged.
Still, he said: “We showed we’re not a flash in the pan, that we’re going to stay around, we’re going to build on this and that’s in fact what’s happened.”
Chisholm resigned shortly after the 1999 election but the party, having established its staying power, eventually won the 2009 election under Darrell Dexter.
Chisholm said he learned from that experience to “take the bad with the good” and how to cope with the increased scrutiny that comes with going from a bit player to a major actor on the political stage.
He also learned not to be spooked by polls or news stories, which these days suggest NDP support is fading while the federal Liberals are enjoying a bit of a resurgence. Interim NDP leader Nycole Turmel, who took over after the death of the popular Jack Layton last August, has been widely skewered for seeming out of her depth while the Liberals’ interim leader, Bob Rae, has won rave reviews.
Chisholm acknowledged that the NDP “largely was identified as Jack Layton’s party” so it’s inevitable the party would suffer from his sudden loss. But he advised New Democrats to “take a deep breath, relax” and remember they’ve got plenty of time before the next election to recoup lost ground.
“Polls are going to come and go. We’ve been at a high-water mark. It’s going to settle back. The question is: How far back does it settle? We’ve got four years. We don’t need to panic.”
The NDP’s historic leap into official Opposition status was fuelled primarily by a surge in support in Quebec, which delivered 59 of the party’s 103 seats. Quebec’s newfound predominance in the party has made Chisholm’s inability to speak French a particular liability.
After haltingly delivering a few memorized lines about how he’s working on his French every day, Chisholm concluded: “C’est tough. But I will do this.”
He said he won’t apologize for being born and raised in rural Nova Scotia, where learning French wasn’t a priority. And he suggested that, while he can learn French, rival candidates can’t necessarily learn the other leadership qualities required to build the party’s support.
“I think the critical question is, I can learn how to speak French but who’s going to be ready on Mar. 25 to take on this responsibility (of leading the party)? And I’m suggesting that real leadership experience is an extremely important part of this whole equation,” he said.
“I appreciate how important it is (to speak French) and I will get there …. But I’m suggesting to you that there’s more to this than the language you speak.”