HALIFAX — A Nova Scotia government spending spree — more than $40 million has come in a flurry of recent daily announcements — is heightening speculation Premier Stephen McNeil will call an election this spring.
Erin Crandall, a political scientist at Acadia University, said the spending stands in stark contrast to the Liberal government's tough line when it imposed a contract on more than 9,000 unionized public school teachers in February.
"This spring you are seeing a lot of spending from a government that for the last few years has been saying there is no money to spend," said Crandall. "This is probably a good indication that if it's not a spring election, then they are certainly thinking about an election that is coming soon."
Nova Scotia is the only province without a fixed election date; the government will reach the four-year mark in October.
Government spending in March included $7.1 million over two years to put the electronic public health information system online; $4.45 million for a Transportation Department maintenance garage near Bridgewater; $2.25 million for a community centre for Jordantown, Acaciaville and Conway; and $13.6 million over three years for an action plan for seniors.
Millions more were also announced as part of a federal-provincial program for affordable housing. Among spending so far this month is $3.2 million for a project to convert the Holy Angels Convent in Sydney into a centre for the arts.
Although she drew no conclusions, Crandall said it generally helps to pay attention to where the announcements are being made in order to decipher the government's intentions.
She said governments typically make announcements in ridings that are perceived to be competitive.
"It's not about popular vote, it's about winning enough ridings, so that means you can use spending announcements in a targeted way and in a strategic way."
The Liberals have in fact made announcements in ridings that were hotly contested in 2013, including $1 million to help upgrade Lunenburg Academy, and $12,500 for a study of the economic benefits of smart grid technology by the Town of Amherst.
The academy is in the Lunenburg riding that was captured by Liberal Suzanne Lohnes-Croft in 2013, after it was held by the NDP in 2009 and the Progressive Conservatives in 2006. Amherst sits in the Cumberland North riding won by Liberal Terry Farrell in a close three-way race in 2013.
McNeil has sent mixed signals about his plans. The premier recently dismissed opposition talk that the spending is simply about electioneering, but he also refused to rule out going to the polls before the April 27 budget is passed.
Election speculation has only increased since the release of recent poll numbers that continue to place the Liberals in majority territory despite a 12 point drop in support.
Crandall thinks the trend line can't be ignored.
"For this government there is not a lot of space to increase their numbers," she said. "If they have taken a hit, then part of their calculation is: Are we better off going sooner rather than later?"
David Johnson, a political scientist at Cape Breton University, also thinks the poll numbers are behind what appears to be the kickoff of a de facto campaign.
"Already they have announced they'll have a balanced budget ... and to be then able to say that you have resources you can put into different programs like the ones they are announcing — it's all adding up to an election call likely coming sooner rather than later."
Spending aside, Johnson believes there is little to prevent the Liberals from going to the polls, including potential court action signalled this week by the Acadian Federation of Nova Scotia over the loss of three so-called protected ridings in an electoral boundary redrawing in 2012.
"I think the premier can mollify Acadian and minority opinions by saying we will have a redistribution after this election," said Johnson. "It may cause a few hiccups along the way early on, but I don't think the issue has great legs."
Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press