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Liberal Keith Irving, left, and volunteer Conor MacNeil canvass in New Minas. (Paul Darrow for The Globe and Mail)
Liberal Keith Irving, left, and volunteer Conor MacNeil canvass in New Minas. (Paul Darrow for The Globe and Mail)

N.S. politicians find angst, cynicism on campaign trail Add to ...

At the doors in Kings South, a provincial riding in Nova Scotia’s verdant Annapolis Valley, Liberal candidate Keith Irving detects a disturbing pattern. Voters are cynical and turned off by politics, fuelled in part by the Senate spending scandal, which has nothing do with Nova Scotia or this election campaign, and by politicians, who they believe can’t keep a promise.

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“I’ve had 150 people tell me either angrily or proudly that they are not voting, which is 5 per cent of the people I have talked to,” says Mr. Irving, who estimates he’s knocked on 5,000 doors. “I think it’s actually a critical time in politics.”

It’s an especially critical time in Nova Scotia, where citizens face the choice on Oct. 8 of electing a new government or staying with the NDP amid concerns about access to health care, the economy and power rates.

Adding to the angst is the fact that the province is aging, more so than the rest of Canada. The population is declining in rural areas, traditional industries are failing and young people are leaving to find jobs elsewhere. Despite these concerns, no central issue has emerged to excite the public and, at the halfway point of the 31-day campaign, the election – even in this bellwether riding – feels flat.

In the past six elections, the Kings South MLA has come from the winning party. In 2009, New Democrat Ramona Jennex, later appointed Education Minister, beat the Progressive Conservative incumbent. It was one of 12 ridings the NDP took from the PCs, and marked a breakthrough into the rural ridings for the party that had been traditionally strong in urban Nova Scotia. Ridings like Kings South helped Darrell Dexter win a majority, the first NDP government in the province, and he needs to hold them if he wants a second term.

But political observers say this election feels different than the last, when it was clear the NDP was poised to replace the struggling PCs. With about 25 per cent of voters undecided – and only a 58-per-cent turnout last time around – politicians have a lot of selling to do.

That sales job has split into two campaigns: one in rural Nova Scotia, and the other in the Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM), which has 40 per cent of the population and 19 of 51 ridings.

The fight in HRM is between the NDP and the Liberals, where six ridings are without incumbents and some of Mr. Dexter’s strong cabinet ministers decided against running again.

The Progressive Conservatives, led by Jamie Baillie – his first election as leader – have set their sights on the rural ridings.

“Honk for lower taxes,” reads the large sign outside of the headquarters of the PC Kings South candidate, Shane Buchan. It sums up what Mr. Baillie, a chartered accountant, and his team are all about.

Mr. Baillie is trying to win back seats lost in 2009 with a plan to target families who live paycheque to paycheque. The $47.8-million PC platform is about the pocketbook, including dropping the HST from 15 to 13 per cent, cutting the corporate tax rate and freezing power rates for five years. As the leader of the third party, he can afford to be bolder.

Mr. Dexter, the day before he called the election, presented a $34.3-million, seven-point platform focused on families. NDP strategists are also concentrating on health care, arguing their plan will deliver health programs more efficiently.

But it’s Liberal Leader Stephen McNeil who has been consistently leading in the polls. Unlike the PCs and NDP, who are also campaigning on lowering the HST and balanced budgets, Mr. McNeil is much more cautious. He is running on a $46.7-million platform, with an education focus, but is only promising an HST reduction when the surplus is big enough.

The Liberals are relying on their federal cousins for help – Justin Trudeau, who draws big crowds in the Maritimes, will be campaigning with Mr. McNeil. Veteran MP Scott Brison, newly appointed co-chair of Mr. Trudeau’s economic team, is out canvassing, and New Brunswick MP Dominic LeBlanc, the Liberal House leader, is helping out. In addition, former Paul Martin senior strategist David Herle is polling for them (although he is based in Toronto, the call centre is in Cape Breton).

While the NDP has history on its side, as Nova Scotians traditionally give governments a second term, voters are skeptical about some of the governing party’s promises – and fed up with politics. Outside the Wal-Mart in New Minas, shopper Kyla Harris says she will vote, but not with great enthusiasm. She hasn’t forgotten the 2004 plebiscite in which Nova Scotians voted against legalizing Sunday shopping – and a year later the government went ahead with it anyway.

“We kind of lost a bit of faith,” she says.

So has another local resident, Barb Nickerson. “I always find elections – they promise you everything and then when it’s over, ‘where did you go?’ Of course all of this Senate stuff has everybody’s head in a spin,” she adds. “It sets all politics off.”

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