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Nova Scotia’s first NDP government faces rocky road into election year

On the night the New Democrats were elected to govern Nova Scotia, party leader Darrell Dexter started his victory speech by suggesting voters had decided "it was time for historic change."

More than three years later, the first NDP government east of Ontario is facing the prospect of an election in 2013 amid a chorus of complaints that very little has changed.

"I think there's been a lot of disappointment with this NDP government and I hear that coming from a lot of people who voted NDP," says David Johnson, a professor of political science at Cape Breton University.

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But Mr. Johnson and other political observers are quick to point out that Mr. Dexter's majority government – like most provincial governments across Canada – has been hobbled by an anemic economy.

Burdened with a bigger-than-expected deficit and shrinking revenue, Mr. Dexter broke two key election pledges by raising taxes and failing to balance the province's books for three consecutive years.

"That's not the type of policy initiative that a lot of New Democratic voters were voting for in 2009," says Mr. Johnson.

In July 2010, the NDP raised the harmonized sales tax by two percentage points, bringing it to 15 per cent.

A budget tabled in April 2010 included a $222-million deficit but revised figures more than a year later showed a surplus of $569-million. The next two budgets fell back into deficit.

Last April, Mr. Dexter promised to reverse the tax hike over two years, starting in 2014. And the deadline to balance the budget is next spring.

Don Mills, CEO of Halifax-based Corporate Research Associates, says his latest polling data suggest a high level of voter dissatisfaction, with the Opposition Liberals leading in popular support.

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"The NDP haven't really delivered on the new type of government people were looking for," Mr. Mills says.

With the province's economy stuck in neutral, voters seem more concerned with pocketbook issues, Mr. Mills says. His firm's research shows that in each of the last three years, 40 per cent of workers have not received any wage increase.

"That means that almost every household is poorer than it was at the start of the recession in 2008," he says.

As a result, the cost of living and rising electricity rates in particular are sure to be dominant issues in the next campaign.

Progressive Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie has promised to freeze power rates if elected to govern. He has hammered away at Nova Scotia Power Inc., the province's privately owned electric utility, repeatedly arguing that rising energy bills are hurting residents and businesses.

Mr. Baillie says the NDP's drive to have the province generate 40 per cent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020 will be too costly for taxpayers.

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"We will freeze power rates and move to more renewable energy at a pace we can afford," Mr. Baillie recently told a campaign readiness conference.

Mr. Dexter has promoted the province's renewable energy targets as among the most aggressive in the world and he insists the plan will lead to more stable power rates once the province ends its heavy dependence on fossil fuels.

He says the province's fortunes are about to change for the better with several megaprojects waiting in the wings.

Earlier this month, in a state-of-the-province address, Mr. Dexter said, "Our great province is turning a corner these days." He then used variations of the same phrase no less than six more times.

In October 2011, Ottawa announced the Halifax Shipyard was the winning bidder for a $25-billion plan to assemble 21 combat ships. At the time, Mr. Dexter said the influx of federal cash was akin to winning an Olympic bid every year for the next 30 years.

Last month, petroleum giant BP won the right to explore in Nova Scotia's offshore after it submitted a $1-billion bid, the highest ever accepted for deepwater exploration rights in Atlantic Canada.

A few weeks later, Prime Minister Stephen Harper signed off on a federal loan guarantee for the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project in Labrador, a venture expected to cost at least $7.4-billion. The development includes construction of a subsea cable that would link Newfoundland with Nova Scotia.

However, these projects will produce few jobs in the near term. At the shipyard, for example, it won't be until 2015 that the first steel is expected to be cut for the navy vessels.

As well, Nova Scotians have seen promises of megaprojects come and go so often that they can be forgiven for being skeptical.

On another front, the Dexter government has come under fire for its decision to offer several bailouts to faltering industries – another hallmark of Atlantic politics.

In a recently released TV attack ad, Liberal Leader Stephen McNeil accuses Mr. Dexter of handing out $590-million in "corporate giveaways" to six companies, two of which have since folded.

Mr. Johnson says the Liberal criticism has struck a chord with voters.

"These NDP initiatives to bail out the pulp and paper industry are vastly unpopular in the rural mainland and, significantly, even more unpopular in Halifax," says Mr. Johnson, noting the NDP draws the bulk of its support from the Halifax area.

But the NDP is fighting back.

The party recently launched a website and mailed out brochures attacking the Liberal plan to break up Nova Scotia Power's monopoly, a scheme the NDP says has failed in other provinces.

Mr. Dexter is also taking aim at those criticizing the government's decision to commit up to $304-million to the Irving Shipbuilding project, which he says will generate $2.8-billion for the province over the next 19 years.

"Without the participation of the province, the Halifax Shipyard could not, and would not have won the rights to build Canada's next fleet of combat vessels," Mr. Dexter said in his state-of-the-province speech.

"Yet down the street in the legislature, there are opposition MLAs who say that they are appalled by the provincial investment that made this possible."

Mr. Dexter has also accused his political opponents of being inexperienced. Mr. McNeil has faced the electorate as leader only once and Mr. Baillie has yet to do so.

Still, the sluggish economy, rising power rates and accusations of wasteful spending appear to be getting under Mr. Dexter's skin, Mr. Johnson says.

"The legislature has become very divisive, very poisonous in the debates," he says. "It's fair to say that the NDP government is beginning to run scared."

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