PORT HAWKESBURY, N.S. – Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter returned Saturday to the scene of what his New Democrats see as an economic triumph to call a provincial election for Oct. 8, reminding voters that his party has directly intervened in the economy when jobs were on the line.
Dexter kicked off his bid for re-election in the Cape Breton town of Port Hawkesbury, where his government helped keep a paper mill running with a $124.5-million aid package in 2012.
“This community represents the decision that I think governments need to make, which is to invest in communities and invest in good jobs,” Dexter said.
He wasted little time taking aim at the Liberals, the perceived front-runners in a campaign where the economy, leadership and energy are expected to be the big issues.
“This election is about whether Nova Scotians will risk turning back to the Liberals or building a better future for today’s families with the NDP,” Dexter told 60 supporters in the clubhouse of a local curling rink.
“Today, I am humbly asking for the NDP to be given the opportunity to use the experience we have gained and to keep building a better future, because there is a lot more work to do.”
Dexter said his party is not without fault, but he added that it has learned a lot since it won power in June 2009, becoming the first NDP government in Atlantic Canada.
“The NDP has made some mistakes as we gained experience,” he said. “But the NDP is opening hospital beds and keeping emergency rooms open, we built 1,000 long-term care beds so far, we’re investing to protect and attract good jobs. All of this while balancing the budget.”
Dexter met with Lt.-Gov. J.J. Grant at a hotel in Sydney to dissolve the legislature two hours before he made the election call public.
The start of the election campaign comes a day after the NDP released its platform in Halifax, promising to keep the books balanced for the next four years while removing the harmonized sales tax from purchases such as car seats for children and strollers.
The NDP says the promise to cut the HST on goods it describes as “family essentials” and keeping home energy bills exempt from the tax would cost an estimated $3.2 million annually. The party plans to make more items exempt from the HST, but Dexter said details of those would come later in the 31-day campaign.
Dexter is basing his campaign on seven broad commitments that he says won’t cost Nova Scotia more than $34.4 million annually.
Both opposition leaders, who doubt Dexter’s ability to keep Nova Scotia in the black while promising tax cuts and increased spending, campaigned Saturday in seat-rich Halifax, long considered an NDP stronghold.
Liberal Leader Stephen McNeil, who said his party will release its platform in the first week of the campaign, accused the NDP of failing to release the exact cost of its commitments.
“What really jumped out at us, quite frankly, wasn’t what was there but what wasn’t there and that was the fact that they haven’t fully costed it,” McNeil said.
“They’ve thrown out a number which is unrealistic.”
He later attended a rally where more than 100 party supporters wearing red T-shirts and waving signs greeted him as he stepped off a campaign bus.
“(The NDP) has chosen corporate interests over the interests of Nova Scotians, and as a result, the day-to-day concerns of Nova Scotians have been neglected,” he said. “It’s time for change.”
McNeil, 48, believes the NDP won’t be able to balance the budget as projected in this fiscal year because it has committed to $53.7 million in new spending over the summer in addition to the costs of its platform promises.
Progressive Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie accused Dexter of financial mismanagement, saying another NDP government would bring economic disaster to a province that posted a record net debt of $14 billion in the 2012-13 fiscal year.
“We can leave behind a Nova Scotia that looks like Detroit and Greece, a ruined economy with no hope for a brighter future tomorrow,” said Baillie, 47, a former accountant and head of a credit union.
“Or we can give our children a Nova Scotia where they can make a life for themselves and their families here at home. But doing that, building a stronger Nova Scotia, requires a true change in direction.”
Baillie said he would release his party’s platform at some point in the campaign, though he declined to be more specific. This is the first time Baillie has led his party into an election campaign.
At dissolution, the NDP held 31 seats in the legislature, the Liberals 12 and the Tories seven. Two seats were vacant.
Redistribution means the number of seats in the legislature will drop after this campaign to 51 from 52.
Dexter, a 55-year-old lawyer, led the NDP to its first victory in Atlantic Canada in 2009.
The party’s win was greeted by a wave of optimism as he was given a strong majority government by voters after successive Tory minorities, but the NDP’s popularity began to slide after it raised the HST by two percentage points in 2010. Dexter promised no tax increases in the last election.
The NDP has since passed legislation that will see the tax return to its previous level of 13 per cent in 2015, something McNeil has said the Liberals will not commit to until they know for sure the province’s budget is balanced.
On Saturday, McNeil said a Liberal government would try to achieve a balanced budget in its first mandate.
“We’ve made it very clear that before anyone can reduce the HST in this province we would have to have a balanced budget,” said McNeil, who is in his second campaign as party leader.
Plans are in the works for a leaders’ debate Tuesday.
Nova Scotia is the only province without a set date for its elections.