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Holdout on fixed elections about to bend

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When would he seek a second mandate? That was the question on the minds of many Nova Scotians for much of 2013 as Premier Darrell Dexter dithered over when he should go to the polls. Dexter and his NDP government were elected in June 2009 and did not have to call an election until the middle of this year.

Dexter could watch the polling numbers and wait for what seemed like the right moment to trigger a campaign -- and keep the opposition parties guessing -- because Nova Scotia is the only province without fixed-date elections.

But this appears likely to change, and soon. This week the province's chief electoral officer released a report calling on the government to introduce a law to fix the date for future elections.

Richard Temporale reminded politicians it costs money to play games with election dates. His office begins to gear up for the vote three years into a majority government's mandate. Staffers who operate polls in 51 ridings need to be trained, and if no election is called within six months, it costs about $280,000 to provide refresher training.

If the election date were known, only one training session would be needed, and better planning and co-ordination would save more money. Co-ordinating election days with professional-development days for teachers, for instance, would free up schools to be used as polling stations.

In all, Temporale estimates it would cost $500,000 less to organize a fixed-date election. While this would do little to ease the financial woes of a province that plans to spend $279 million more than it will make in the current fiscal year, it's a start.

Dexter was not the only Nova Scotia premier to play the election-date guessing game. In the 1980s, Progressive Conservative John Buchanan called back-to-back elections after just three years, catching the opposition off guard and winning both. Then he called a rare summer election to win a fourth mandate in 1988, a move widely seen as an attempt to ensure NDP-leaning university students would be so busy preparing for fall classes they would be unlikely to vote.

Four years and eight months passed before Buchanan's successor fought -- and lost -- the next election, and the Liberal administration elected in 1993 was two months shy of the five-year term limit when it sought a second mandate (it emerged with a minority government that barely lasted a year).

Dexter, for his part, let the fourth anniversary of his election pass in June 2013 as he waited for his dismal polling numbers to rebound. When they did, though only slightly, he called an election for early October, only to see his 31-seat majority government crushed under a Liberal steamroller. The NDP salvaged just seven seats -- Dexter was among those defeated -- as the Liberals claimed 33 of 51 ridings.

The new premier, Stephen McNeil, supported fixed-date elections while in opposition and his government is studying legislation in other provinces before unveiling a new system this fall. A fixed-date election, McNeil argued in 2009, prevents a government from playing politics and calling elections "when it's to their political advantage."

The second Tuesday in October, four years into a mandate, is likely to be designated as election day. That's the date specified in a private member's bill McNeil introduced in March 2013 and the Progressive Conservatives, the official Opposition, favour the same date. Both proposals allow for voting day to be adjusted if it would conflict with a federal campaign, a common feature of provincial fixed-date legislation.

This would send Nova Scotians back to the polls on Oct. 10, 2017. And even though the government would finally relinquish its control over election timing, the timing could be perfect for McNeil.

If the Liberals' fiscal projections hold, they will head into the next campaign as the administration that balanced the budget after years of deficits in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Finance Minister Diana Whalen's first budget, tabled last month, sets revenue and spending targets she insists will yield a $13.6-million surplus by 2017.

So the timing of Nova Scotia's first fixed-date election will likely be to McNeil's political advantage even after he gives up the right to pick the date.

Dean Jobb, the Winnipeg Free Press East Coast correspondent, is an associate professor of journalism at the University of King's College in Halifax.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 2, 2014 0

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