HALIFAX — Nova Scotians will go to the polls May 30 as Premier Stephen McNeil's Liberal government seeks its second mandate following a term in office largely marked by frugal spending and public sector labour strife.
McNeil kicked off the campaign Sunday with a rally at a Lebanese cultural centre in the heart of a key Halifax riding, shortly after meeting with Lt.-Gov. J.J. Grant at Government House.
In a speech before a packed room of enthusiastic supporters and party workers, McNeil acknowledged his government had made some unpopular decisions since being elected in 2013.
"We had to make tough choices, choices that weren't always popular," said McNeil. "I believe you either shape change or change shapes you. We had to shape our own change."
At dissolution the Liberals held 34 seats in the 51-seat legislature, the Progressive Conservatives had 10 and the NDP 5. There was one Independent and one seat was vacant.
The election follows nearly two months of election-style spending announcements by the Liberals, and a budget tabled Thursday offering a broad, though modest tax cut to about 500,000 low and middle income Nova Scotians.
It was the second consecutive balanced budget for the Liberals. The government has exercised strict wage restraint for public sector unions, including nurses and teachers, while making a series of cuts to programs affecting areas such as seniors' long-term care and initiatives run by public service organizations.
"Thanks to our choices the province is in better shape than it was three and a half years ago," McNeil told the crowd.
He also took shots at his campaign opponents, accusing the Tories of being "negative about the province's future" and saying the NDP were ready to "write a blank cheque to big labour."
The government's budget died with the election call, leaving McNeil to explain to reporters why it wasn't voted on in the legislature before the writ was dropped. He said it's a matter of letting the public decide.
"I'm not presumptuous enough to believe that all of them (the public) agree with my vision," McNeil said. "So let me present my vision to them, we will let the other two parties present their vision, and then Nova Scotians will decide."
McNeil also made no apologies for his government or its policies.
"There will be some who obviously in the last three-and-a-half years have not been happy with us, he said. "I am not running from the record."
Tory Leader Jamie Baillie pitched himself Sunday as a sunny alternative to four years of Liberal austerity, which he said has hurt Nova Scotia's rural communities, allowed infrastructure to crumble and sent doctors and young people away from the province in "droves."
"(Nova Scotians) will have to decide if they want to invest and jobs and in their communities, or if they want more McNeil cuts," said Baillie, surrounded by Tory candidates. "Only the Progressive Conservative party has the plan to allow Nova Scotians to stand proudly on their own two feet once again."
Baillie said the premier's heavy hand in dealing with public sector unions has resonated through the province, and said if elected, he would push for a "middle way" that would keep wages at roughly current levels but increase investment in public services.
Baillie's speech was replete with promises of prosperity, but when pressed for specifics, the Tory leader often pivoted back to attacking McNeil.
Baillie has been sounding confident that his party, which hasn't won an election since 2006, is poised for an electoral breakthrough. That's critical for Baillie, who is leading the party through his second campaign — and may not get a third opportunity if expectations aren't realized.
Baillie has painted the provincial race as a referendum on McNeil. He said the Tories will release a party platform "very soon."
NDP Leader Gary Burrill told dozens of supporters at a west-end cafe Sunday that an NDP government would prioritize "investments in our people" over a balanced budget to tackle issues like hunger, access to education and hospital overcrowding.
"All the evidence is that the McNeil Liberals are not the objects of anyone's affection in Nova Scotia at the moment," Burrill told reporters. "I think that the door has opened to any possibility now with the announcement of the election and we'll see what happens in the next month."
Burrill said he's putting "every ounce of energy" into his own race in the Halifax-Chebucto riding, having won his party's leadership race last year without a seat in the provincial legislature.
He aims to revive the fortunes of a party that had a dramatic fall from grace in 2013, when it was swept from government by the Liberals.
The election call comes after spring polling that indicated the Liberals had fallen in popularity, although they were still in majority territory as of March, according to Cape Breton University professor David Johnson.
Decided voter support for the Liberal party dropped from 56 per cent to 44 per cent, according to a survey of 1,210 adults conducted by Halifax-based Corporate Research Associates Inc. The Progressive Conservatives stood at 28 per cent, up eight points, and the New Democrats were at 23 per cent, up from 19 per cent, while five per cent supported the Green Party.
"They are pretty much back to where they were in 2013," Johnson said in an interview last month. "Forty-four per cent will win them a strong, healthy majority government if that number hold up during the election campaign."
Johnson said the key would be holding onto ridings in metro Halifax.
"The Liberals dominate metro (currently) and whomever dominates metro, that's the pathway into a majority government," he said.
— With files from Adina Bresge and Kieran Leavitt
Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press