Nova Scotia·Opinion

Is Nova Scotia headed to the polls this fall for a provincial election?

The Nova Scotia Liberals are trying to fix the irritants that might get in the way of coasting to victory, should a fall election be called.

Premier and Liberals are riding high in polls after three years in office

It's slightly less that three years since the Nova Scotia Liberals went to the polls in 2013, but it looks as if another election is brewing for the fall. (CBC)

Are we headed to the polls this fall for a provincial election?

Premier Stephen McNeil and his happy band of Liberals were sworn into office in October 2013.

Constitutionally, a government holds office for up to five years. 

But the only premiers that hold on for five years are the ones that know they are in for a licking—Cameron in 1993 and MacLellan in 1998 come to mind.

A majority government typically calls an election after four years, so pundits had 2017 circled on their calendars. 

Except for one thing.

John Buchanan permanently warped Nova Scotia political thinking when he called elections at the three-year mark in 1981 and 1984. 

He won both of these "early" elections with majority governments. 

Ever since, the speculation mounts just before the three-year mark—will they go?

Scared and motivated

Premiers are always reluctant to close down their options too early.

They play along with the three-year election speculation for as long as they can. 

Besides, they need to keep their own people scared and motivated. 

It is very easy, when in government, to get complacent, or just to be busy with the business of government. 

The premier needs his own MLAs and nominated candidates to get out on the doorsteps and on the barbecue circuit this summer.

They'll do it with the necessary vigour only if they themselves truly believe a fall election is possible.

Auspicious numbers

There are signs favouring a fall election.

First, and most importantly, the Liberals and the premier are high and steady in the polls, especially compared to their opponents. 

This is no small feat. The popularity of Stephen McNeil's counterparts in New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador quickly dropped after their elections, in 2014 and 2015 respectively.

At this point in its mandate, the Dexter government was down to 35 per cent support, essentially tied with the Liberals. 

The McNeil Liberals today? According to Corporate Research Associates' latest poll, they have 59 per cent support from decided voters.

Those numbers are auspicious. 

And as I've written before, any politician who tells you they don't pay attention to polls is pulling your leg.

Checklist of issues

Second, the McNeil government is going down a checklist of issues that need to be quieted, if not actually resolved. 

That's a classic move of a government about to go to the polls. 

For example, the Liberals have announced a task force on mental health, an issue championed by opposition leader Jamie Baillie. 

They've added a small amount to the film fund.

They've reached a financial settlement with the province's doctors and will soon be announcing their plan to alleviate doctor shortages.

One by one, the Liberals are trying to fix the irritants that get in the way of coasting to victory.

Municipal elections

There is one big reason not to go to the polls this fall: municipal elections on Oct.15.

I have a hard time believing that the premier would deliberately create an overlap between municipal and provincial elections. 

It's not because overlapping elections create confusion. That reason is overrated. But overlapping elections do create problems with raising money and finding volunteers.

Besides, there are many identifiable Liberals running for municipal council seats. 

Those activist Liberals will be very unhappy if the provincial party steals their meagre resources—money and people and energy—for a provincial election.

There could still be a provincial election after the municipal elections are over, but that's getting late and cold and close to Christmas.  Not ideal.

Needs an excuse

If Premier McNeil really does want to go to the polls, he still needs a plausible reason to present to the public.

The real reason is "I'm calling an election because I know we're going to win," but he can't say that out loud.

He needs an excuse. But what?

The one big outstanding public-policy issue is labour relations. 

The government doesn't yet have a deal with teachers or the other big public-sector unions

If we hear the premier start to ramp up the rhetoric on labour relations, that will be the best indication yet that we should sharpen our election pencils.

About the Author

Graham Steele

Political analyst

Graham Steele is a former MLA who was elected four times as a New Democrat for the constituency of Halifax Fairview. He also served as finance minister. Steele is now a political analyst for CBC News.

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