Nova Scotia

Ferry's future looms large in tight N.S. contest

Political promises on the future of a Yarmouth-Maine ferry service are dominating the campaign in what is expected to be one of Nova Scotia's closest election races.

Kerr and Thibault fighting rematch of 2008 campaign

Conservative candidate Greg Kerr. ((CBC))
Political promises on the future of a Yarmouth-Maine ferry service are dominating the campaign in what is expected to be one of Nova Scotia's closest election races.

Conservative incumbent Greg Kerr wrestled the riding of West Nova away from Liberal Robert Thibault in 2008 by only 1,600 votes.

Both men are high-profile former cabinet ministers. Kerr was Nova Scotia's finance minister in the 1980s and Thibault served in the federal cabinet after he first captured the riding in 2000.

This year they're fighting again for a sprawling constituency that encompasses dozens of both English and Acadian communities, from the Annapolis Valley to Yarmouth.

Although the fishing industry remains relatively strong, West Nova's economy has been hard hit in recent years by a decline in American tourism. At the same time, the provincial NDP government decided in 2009 to end its multimillion-dollar annual subsidy of the Yarmouth-Maine ferry, thereby killing the service.

Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff has visited Yarmouth twice in recent months and has promised to fully restore the ferry service with federal money.

The Conservative government hasn't matched that promise, but it has pledged some money to help bring back the service. It also spent $600,000 upgrading Yarmouth's ferry terminal.

Kerr said that project, plus declining national support for the Liberals, are likely to help him on election night.

"I think with the Liberals weakening right now nationally, probably people are thinking very, very carefully — 'If the government's going back in, we need a member on the government side.' We do hear that, particularly in the last few days," he told CBC News.

Liberal candidate Robert Thibault. ((CBC))
An unknown factor this year will be the strength of NDP candidate George Barron, a part-time paramedic. The NDP won 17 per cent of the West Nova vote in 2008.

Barron may benefit from the surging national popularity of the NDP, but lingering local resentment at his provincial government colleagues for killing the ferry could also work against him.

Barron has said the Digby-Saint John ferry, which is still in service, is the best ferry to maintain with public money because it relies less on tourism than on commercial traffic. He said he is "very skeptical" that a ferry to Maine has any future.

Thibault said a low Liberal turnout in the last election cost him the seat. He said growing concerns in the riding about a Stephen Harper majority will bring Liberals back to the polls this year, and also steer NDP votes his way.

"People are ready for change," Thibault told CBC News. "There is not a lot of comfort with Stephen Harper, a great fear of him having a majority government and what it would mean for our country.

"So there's a lot of people who would otherwise — their sympathies would [normally] be to the New Democrats — who are choosing to vote with us."