HALIFAX -- A lot of Nova Scotians believe a former appliance repairman can fix the province's stubborn economic and fiscal problems -- enough, in fact, to make Stephen McNeil a shoo-in for premier if an election were called today.
McNeil, a 48-year-old who made the jump from small-business owner to provincial politics a decade ago, leads a resurgent Liberal Party that's riding high in the polls and threatening to make Nova Scotia's first NDP government a one-term wonder.
The New Democrats are approaching their fourth year in power, fuelling speculation that Premier Darrell Dexter will call an election this year (unlike Manitoba, Nova Scotia has not introduced fixed-term elections). But his government's sagging popularity, a struggling economy and an unkept promise to balance the books could delay a vote until well into 2014.
The NDP's woes -- and the Liberals' gains -- come despite some impressive accomplishments since June 2009, when the party won 31 of 52 seats and 45 per cent of the popular vote. The "orange crush," as pundits dubbed it, relegated a Progressive Conservative government to third-party status.
Dexter has reined in spending and brokered a deal to save a paper mill and hundreds of jobs. He shared the glory when the Irving-owned Halifax Shipyard was tapped to build Canada's new fleet of warships, a deal that will pump billions of dollars into the provincial economy. Last fall, computer giant IBM announced it will open a Halifax data centre and hire up to 500 employees.
The job-creation initiatives have been costly -- tax breaks for IBM, up to $260 million in forgivable provincial loans to the billionaire Irving clan to kick-start the shipbuilding program -- and have put the New Democrats in the odd position of being criticized as too cozy with big business.
The Liberals have scored points with attack ads urging voters to "take the chequebook away from the NDP."
And there have been plenty of setbacks and controversies to crowd out these good-news headlines. Another paper mill and other factories have closed; jobs lost have offset many of the new ones created or promised.
Statistics Canada counted 5,000 jobs lost in December alone, pushing the province's unemployment rate to 9.3 per cent. With the national rate hovering at seven per cent and on the decline, it's no wonder Dexter has stepped back from the electoral brink.
The premier also has failed to deliver on a promise to balance the budget. The province projects a higher-than-expected $277-million deficit this fiscal year and is spending almost $900 million a year to service a debt that's well north of $13 billion.
It all adds up to some startling polling numbers. McNeil's Liberals, with just 13 seats in the legislature, won the backing of 41 per cent of decided voters in major polls conducted in August and November. NDP support slid from 31 to 29 per cent, barely eclipsing the 27 per cent support for the Conservatives and their leader, accountant and former political aide, Jamie Baillie.
There's a silver lining for the NDP in these ominous numbers -- four out of 10 respondents were undecided or have no plans to vote, and a 3.5-per-cent margin of error may be inflating the Liberal numbers.
Dexter, for his part, appears ready to call an election as soon as the job figures and polling numbers improve.
"We have put in place a recipe for prosperity in the years to come," he asserted in a year-end interview with CBC Radio, sounding very much like a leader test-driving his next campaign platform.
The government may be most vulnerable on the hot-button issue of power rates. Nova Scotians pay some of the highest electric bills in the country and face a fresh round of rate hikes. While a privately owned utility, Nova Scotia Power Corporation, supplies the power, NDP legislation demanding a transition from coal to renewable energy sources is one reason consumers are feeling the pinch.
The opposition has been hammering away at the NDP on the issue. McNeil's Liberals want to end Nova Scotia Power's monopoly and say competition from other suppliers would lower rates. Baillie's Conservatives think creating a regional power grid would have the same effect.
The fall session of the legislature was stormy, with the NDP targeting the Liberal frontrunner as Public Enemy No. 1. A low point was reached when a government backbencher suggested McNeil's expertise on the issue of power rates was limited to "the power it takes to run a washer or a dryer."
If the polls are right, he's still the kind of repairman Nova Scotians want to put in charge.
Dean Jobb, a professor of journalism at the University of King's College in Halifax, is the Winnipeg Free Press East Coast correspondent.