Nova Scotia Election: Is Darrell Dexter's Personal Brand Hurting NDP?

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HALIFAX - If you believe the polls, Darrell Dexter has an image problem.

The Nova Scotia premier, whose homespun image as everyone's favourite uncle helped propel the New Democrats into power in 2009, was seen in a less favourable light as the campaign for the Oct. 8 election began.

Earlier this month, just before the election race started, 19 per cent of 400 people who participated in an Aug. 8-31 telephone poll conducted by Corporate Research Associates chose Dexter when asked who they would prefer as premier. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

That's a long way from the lofty 50 per cent recorded by the same polling company in August 2009, two months after Nova Scotia became the first province east of Ontario to elect an NDP government. That poll sampled 1,400 people and had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.6 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

For Dexter, the slide in the polls started early.

With a global recession tightening its grip on the province's economy, the rookie premier jettisoned some of his key election promises in short order.

The Dexter brand endured its biggest hit only nine months into the mandate when the NDP said it would raise the province's harmonized sales tax by two percentage points to 15 per cent, breaking a key campaign pledge.

Dexter also failed to deliver on a promise to balance the province's books for three consecutive years.

"He's let people down on certain issues," says Lori Turnbull, a political science professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax. "People had expectations of real change, and it didn't happen."

However, it would be wrong to assume Dexter's personal popularity in the polls has been declining since the HST flip-flop.

By mid 2011, his rating was making a steady comeback as the country warmed to the federal New Democrats, who would win a record-setting 103 seats in the May 2 federal election, thanks largely to Jack Layton's personal appeal.

And in November 2011, Dexter's approval numbers jumped again after he led a high-profile campaign to support a successful bid by Irving Shipbuilding to win a $25-billion federal contract to build navy combat ships in Halifax.

But that honeymoon didn't last long.

Since then, Dexter's popularity in the polls has plunged, except for a brief respite in November 2012 when his majority government helped secure the sale of an insolvent paper mill in Cape Breton, saving hundreds of jobs.

Still, that good news announcement came at a price, says David Johnson, a political science professor at Cape Breton University.

The NDP has taken flak for handing out subsidies to well-heeled companies, including Irving Shipbuilding, IBM and the Vancouver-based Stern Group, which bought the Port Hawkesbury Paper mill with the province pitching in $124 million over 10 years.

The premier has said the financial assistance was needed because the province has to compete for jobs with other jurisdictions. But the Opposition Liberals, widely perceived as the front-runners in the election race, have hammered the government for subsidizing wealthy corporations.

The tag line for one of the Liberal attack ads is: "It's time to take the chequebook away from the NDP."

"The corporate welfare stuff really sticks in the craw for a lot of Nova Scotians, especially core New Democratic supporters," says Johnson. "I think a lot of these people are really ticked off and jaded."

Johnson says if Dexter's folksy, low-key image has taken a beating, it's mainly because of factors beyond his control.

He says the NDP came into office amid high expectations, which were difficult to meet as the province's economy struggled under the weight of the recession.

"They promised to do things differently and that ... the province would be changed for the better," Johnson says. "I think most Nova Scotians would say that things aren't any better, or that we've actually gone backwards."

Last week, a Royal Bank study predicted Nova Scotia's rate of economic growth for 2013 will be 1.2 per cent — the second-lowest in the country. The study also said the province is expected to produce fewer than 500 new jobs in 2013, marking the province’s fifth consecutive year of anemic employment growth at less than one per cent.

"They were dealing with the worst recession since the 1930s," Johnson says. "All economies in Canada are struggling. ... You could say Dexter has done as well as anyone could possibly do, given the situation he had to deal with."

The problem is that politics in Canada has become so leader-focused that the premier has to shoulder the blame for problems that have little to do with him, Johnson says.

Dexter, who has led his party for 12 years, says it comes with the territory.

"Whenever you're the decision maker, you're never going to satisfy everybody," he said last week during a campaign stop at a Halifax seniors home. "We tend to focus on the things that we don't like instead of the things that we do."

The premier has insisted for months that the province's fortunes are about to change for the better with several megaprojects waiting in the wings. He routinely points to the shipbuilding project, the Deep Panuke offshore platform and construction of the $1.5-billion Maritime Link, a subsea cable linking Nova Scotia with Newfoundland's electricity grid.

"The financial forecasting agencies right across the country say that in 2014-15 we are going to move ahead of Ontario, ahead of Quebec in terms of our economic growth," he said on the first day of the 31-day campaign.

Dexter says he relishes the challenge of overcoming the odds.

"We've been underdogs in almost every campaign we've ever been in," he says. "We're used to that position."

— With files from Keith Doucette in Halifax.

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said Imperial Oil received a subsidy from Nova Scotia's NDP government.

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