03/01/2013 06:16 EST | Updated 05/01/2013 05:12 EDT

Nova Scotia Liberal leader attacks NDP in pre-election style speech

HALIFAX - An attack ad aimed at Stephen McNeil prompted Nova Scotia's Liberal Leader to return fire in a speech that accused the governing NDP of mishandling the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project and the federal shipbuilding contract.

Speaking to party members Friday, McNeil said Premier Darrell Dexter has been a follower rather than a leader when it comes to the multibillion-dollar shipbuilding contract and the megaproject in Labrador.

He said questions he has asked on both projects have left the government on the defensive.

"When you ask tough questions, the people who are supposed to have the answers can get a little frustrated and a little defensive when they don't," McNeil told delegates gathered for the party's annual general meeting at a Halifax hotel.

"I want to lead and those who would prefer to keep a follower in the premier's office don't like it too much."

McNeil said the NDP's discomfort prompted the party to produce a TV attack ad in which the Liberal leader is portrayed as wanting to import electricity from Quebec at the expense of an Atlantic regional solution.

McNeil said the distortion of his position is an example of how the NDP governs.

"The government of Nova Scotia and Nova Scotia Power's biggest cheerleader, Darrell Dexter, has locked the people of this province into a deal that puts Nova Scotians at the mercy of Emera for a generation," McNeil said, referring to the province's privately owned utility and its parent company.

McNeil said he's been attacked for suggesting the government has failed to explore alternative energy options such as natural gas and importing cheaper energy from Quebec or New Brunswick.

Following the speech, McNeil made no apologies for his aggressive tone ahead of an election expected to be called this year.

"If someone decides to take a shot at me, I'm not going to stand back without defending myself," he said. "I'm more than prepared to defend my record and will try to focus the government on theirs."

When asked about the ad following a cabinet meeting Thursday, Dexter said it was meant to provide contrast to the government's record.

"I think people really have to examine the things the guy has been saying," said Dexter. "It is about a comparison of our plan with Mr. McNeil's."

Meanwhile, McNeil told the audience the province is headed into an election campaign "plain and simple."

To that end, he repeated pledges to bolster the education system by restoring budget cuts and revising the curriculum to meet technological changes driving the economy.

McNeil also said he would focus on expanding the rural economy and not just the urban areas.