The election of the first New Democratic government east of Ontario, four years ago last June, was dubbed an "Orange Crush." As Nova Scotians head back to the polls next month, a lot of them seem determined to turn the province Liberal red.
After months of speculation and a raft of spending announcements, Premier Darrell Dexter pulled the plug on the weekend, setting Oct. 8 as voting day. The lawyer and former journalist, who turns 56 this week, is casting himself the underdog as he seeks a second mandate -- and he has the polling numbers to prove it.
The NDP has been trailing the opposition Liberal Party since last summer. An election-eve survey by Halifax-based Corporate Research Associates pegged the Liberals as the choice of 41 per cent of decided voters. That's down from previous polls but still a solid lead over the NDP, which rebounded slightly to 31 per cent. One in four respondents wants the Progressive Conservatives, the party Dexter ousted, back in power.
Dexter's personal popularity stands at a dismal 19 per cent, about the same as PC Leader Jamie Baillie, who's fighting his first campaign. Almost a third of respondents want to see Liberal Leader Stephen McNeil become the province's 28th premier.
There's a bright spot for Dexter and a troubling caveat for McNeil -- more than half of those surveyed were undecided, had no plans to vote or declined to say which party they support.
So there are plenty of hearts and minds to be won over, and room for Nova Scotia on the list of recent election outcomes that have defied the polls. And if there's a further NDP recovery at the Liberals' expense, the province could be headed for its fourth minority government in 15 years.
Dexter won 31 of the legislature's 52 seats in the last election, but he's looking like the Rodney Dangerfield of politics -- no matter what he says or does, he can't seem to win Nova Scotians' respect.
He backed Irving Shipbuilding's successful bid for a $25-billion contract to build frigates and Arctic patrol vessels in Halifax, but thousands of promised jobs won't begin to materialize until 2015. The NDP saved one of two pulp mills from closure and construction cranes dot the Halifax skyline, yet the unemployment rate remains above the national average and only 6,600 more people have jobs now than in 2009.
On the fiscal-management side, the NDP raised the HST by two per cent -- and broke a promise not to raise taxes -- to make good on another promise to balance the budget. But the debt rose by almost $2 billion, to $14 billion, on the NDP's watch, and doubts linger over whether the government really has turned last year's $300-million deficit into this year's $18-million surplus.
Dexter is promising to rescind the sale-tax hike if re-elected, and can only hope voters are in a mood to forgive.
The Liberals, out of power since 1999, head into the election with a dozen seats and all the momentum. For months the NDP has been hammering away at McNeil with Harper-style attack ads, portraying him as inexperienced and "not worth the risk," but to little avail.
McNeil, 48, who ran an appliance-repair business before jumping into provincial politics a decade ago, is fighting his second election and his biggest advantage appears to be that he's not Dexter. Surging support for the federal Liberals in Atlantic Canada and Justin Trudeau's promise to join the campaign are certain to boost his chances.
McNeil kicked off his campaign on the weekend with vague promises to make "dedicated, innovative, smart investments" and to put "the interests of Nova Scotians first."
The PCs hold seven seats (there are two vacancies) and Baillie, a 47-year-old who plays up his former career as a small-town accountant, is touting a proposed five-year freeze on power rates. That may be a tough promise to keep, though, in a province with a regulated but privately owned electrical utility.
In the days leading up to the election call (Nova Scotia is the only province without fixed-date elections), Dexter made a series of deck-clearing announcements and earmarked more money to help seniors, farmers and students. The NDP also re-established the subsidized car ferry link to New England it cancelled soon after its election, in a blatant -- and belated -- effort to mend fences in a region hit hard by the resulting loss of tourist traffic.
Electoral boundaries were redrawn last year, leaving 51 seats up from grabs in the campaign. With the Liberals riding high in the polls and a second Orange Crush clearly not in the cards, this election will be McNeil's to lose.
Dean Jobb, the Winnipeg Free Press East Coast correspondent, is associate director of the School of Journalism at the University of King's College in Halifax.