09/08/2013 11:37 EDT | Updated 11/08/2013 05:12 EST

Liberal leader vows to break Nova Scotia Power monopoly, end rate increases

HALIFAX - Nova Scotia Liberal Leader Stephen McNeil vowed to break Nova Scotia Power's monopoly Sunday as the provincial election campaign got underway.

McNeil said ending the utility's monopoly would allow renewable energy producers in the private sector to compete for business in the province and make rates more affordable.

"For the last four years, Darrell Dexter and the NDP have walked hand-in-hand with Nova Scotia Power," said McNeil on Sunday afternoon. "As a result, the Dexter government has always supported Nova Scotia Power over Nova Scotia ratepayers.

"A new Liberal government will end the cozy relationship with Nova Scotia Power and create a system built on the principles of consumer choice."

McNeil said power rates have risen 30 per cent over the past four years and Nova Scotians are paying the highest rates in the country.

"If you look at breaking the monopoly so that private sector investment can come into this province... we'll allow our province to finally get to a point where we're not solely reliant on one energy generation and we're moving to a much broader mix which allows us to stabilize," he said, adding that introducing legislation would be one of his first orders of business as a new government.

But NDP politician Mat Whynott said the government has looked at the energy needs of the province and breaking the monopoly is not the best deal for Nova Scotians. He said the $1.5 billion Maritime Link project, which would ship hydroelectricity from Muskrat Falls in Labrador to Nova Scotia, will further stabilize power rates in the long term.

"When we came into government we reduced the power rates by 10 per cent. We took the HST off of home heating sources in this province," said Whynott, who is running again in the Halifax area. "The important point here is that Mr. McNeil voted eight times to keep the HST on home energy. That's a risky idea in our view."

Earlier Sunday, Progressive Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie said he would stop corporate bailouts in one of his first promises of the campaign.

Baillie said the province has a long history of loaning money to failed businesses, such as furniture maker Scanwood.

The province loaned Scanwood $4.6 million in 2010 and the company was later placed in receivership, which Baillie says is an example of Premier Darrell Dexter's failed policies.

"For 50 years, governments in Nova Scotia have been trying to buy jobs through corporate bailouts, handouts and giveaways," Baillie said at the former Scanwood site in the Halifax area. "It's a system of economic development that no longer works, if it ever really did."

Baillie said the NDP hands out roughly $89 million annually to businesses and that money would be better spent reducing the harmonized sales tax.

"Nova Scotia needs a new approach. We have to change the way this province is run," said Baillie. "Get rid of the old thinking that the government has to bail out winners and losers and make Nova Scotia jobs... equally and fairly for everyone through lower taxes."

Whynott said the government funding for businesses allows Nova Scotia to remain competitive with other jurisdictions.

"Mr. Baillie's just not committed to rural communities across the province," said Whynott. "Basically he's saying not to invest in people, and we believe that's wrong."

Whynott noted that the investments are contingent on job creation, citing the government's $10-million deal earlier this year with tech giant Blackberry (TSX:BB) if it keeps 400 jobs in the province.

Dexter called the election Saturday for Oct. 8, telling voters the choice is between a return to the Liberals or continuing to build a different future under the NDP.

A day earlier, the NDP unveiled its platform in Halifax, promising to keep the books balanced for the next four years while removing the harmonized sales tax from purchases such as car seats for children and strollers.

McNeil said that the Liberal platform was expected to be released on Wednesday.

Baillie said his platform will be released soon, but would not be more specific.

The three leaders are set to debate on CBC Nova Scotia on Tuesday evening.