POLITICS

Parties in Nova Scotia gird for election as legislature starts new session

03/25/2013 02:51 EDT | Updated 05/25/2013 05:12 EDT
HALIFAX - Trailing in the polls and saddled with an anemic economy, Nova Scotia's NDP government is calculating its odds for re-election as the legislature resumes sitting Tuesday, probably for the last time before voters go to the polls.

Premier Darrell Dexter, in the fourth year of a majority mandate, has pledged to table a balanced budget April 4. But he says he won't call a snap election after that.

Dexter says the budget must be approved by the legislature, which means the earliest opportunity for an election will be in June.

Some observers think that's unlikely to happen.

Not only is the NDP lagging behind the Opposition Liberals in the polls, the party's approval rating has dipped to 40 per cent, says Don Mills, CEO of the Halifax-based Corporate Research Associates.

In the 25 years the company has been surveying voters in Atlantic Canada, no government has been returned to power with less than a 50 per cent approval rating.

"If they can't get their satisfaction numbers up, the chances of re-election are a lot slimmer than they would like them to be," he said. "They need time for that to happen."

Dexter also needs a new strategy, says Tom Urbaniak, political science professor at Cape Breton University in Sydney.

Aside from the usual electioneering, including the expected deluge of pre-election funding announcements in the weeks ahead, the NDP has already focused its sights on Liberal Leader Stephen McNeil.

"Stephen McNeil will be portrayed as someone who is trying to get in the way of economic development," Urbaniak says. "The NDP will be doing whatever it can to instill reticence and even fear ... of the possibility of Stephen McNeil as premier."

The NDP has already released an attack ad that says Nova Scotians know little about McNeil, who has led the party since 2007. One ominous image in the televised ad shows McNeil's face fading to black as a large question mark emerges from the background.

As for Dexter, he all but confirmed that McNeil is in for a rough ride when the two square off in question period this week.

"We want to make sure people know what he is proposing, even though ... it has been erratic and convenient," the premier said in an interview.

"Whatever it is that he is proposing, every one of these things, we believe, are about turning the hands of time backwards."

In particular, Dexter says he plans to expose the flaws in McNeil's plan to beak up the monopoly held by Nova Scotia Power Inc., the province's privately owned electric utility.

Dexter says the Liberal plan has been tried in other jurisdictions, including New Brunswick, where it has been recently dismissed as ineffective.

McNeil's message to Dexter as the session opens with a throne speech Tuesday is simple: bring it on.

"We welcome the scrutiny," he says before shifting into attack mode.

McNeil, who will be facing his second election as party leader, says Dexter has to be held to account for handing hundreds of millions of dollars in "corporate welfare" to big businesses, including Irving Shipbuilding and Imperial Oil.

He mentioned "corporate welfare" three times during an interview last week, a sign that the phrase could figure prominently in the party's campaign.

The Liberals recently produced their own attack ad, which says: "It's time to take the chequebook away from the NDP."

As well, McNeil says voters should be skeptical of Dexter's promise to balance the budget and reverse the government's 2010 decision to increase the province's harmonized sales tax by two percentage points to 15 per cent.

"Do Nova Scotians actually believe this government will follow through on what it has said?" McNeil asked. "It was only four years ago that the premier said he wasn't going to raise taxes."

As for the Progressive Conservatives, party leader Jamie Baillie admits he has a challenge on his hands as he prepares to face the electorate for the first time as leader.

"I acknowledge that I'm the newest of the three leaders ... but my experience is that as Nova Scotians get to know me, my support tends to grow," says Baillie, a chartered accountant who served as CEO of Credit Union Atlantic until 2010.

The Tories haven't used any attack ads. Instead, they've produced a video that features Baillie standing in a kitchen, casually dressed and addressing the camera. It begins with: "I'm Jamie Baillie. We don't know each other that well yet."

The ad goes on to say Baillie, as premier, would cut taxes, stop wasteful spending and create jobs.

McNeil says Baillie can hardly be considered a fresh face on the political scene, considering he served as chief of staff to former Conservative premier John Hamm.

"He has been in the back rooms of the Tory party for as long as anyone can remember," McNeil says. "To suggest he's the new guy around politics is completely inaccurate and somewhat misleading."

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said the provincial budget is on April 2.