Memo to East Coast premiers: danger lies ahead

Dan Leger
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If 2013 was any indication of things to come, political leaders across Atlantic Canada better watch their backs. Voters in Nova Scotia turned with a vengeance on the party to which it had given a solid majority in 2009. If Nova Scotians can do it, other Maritime voters can do it too.

I’m looking at you, New Brunswick. Once change gets into the air, no amount of public-relations wizardry can save a government that has lost touch with voters.

Remember, the New Democrats got turfed in Nova Scotia despite a steady diet of upbeat messaging during their four years in power.

Voters didn’t care that the province had done fairly well out of the recession, compared with some others.

Unemployment levels remained reasonably steady, although jobs were being lost at a gut-churning pace. The forest industry came close to imploding, but that was through no fault of the Darrell Dexter government.

With thousands of rural and small-town jobs on the line, the forestry crisis was a terrifying experience for the NDP and an expensive rescue mission for the public treasury.

But there were positives on the NDP’s ledger, too. At least, they should have been positive. It turned out that on election day, the so-called positives weren’t worth much at all.

The naval shipbuilding program, a new offshore gas field, lots of construction in Halifax and a hydro mega-project to hook up with Muskrat Falls in Labrador; all have potential to create jobs and opportunities and all were announced during the Dexter government’s time in office.

But they won’t be around to enjoy it. Instead, the NDP ended up wearing every problem that arose, from an MLA expense scandal to the high cost of electricity.

In snowy Fredericton, Tory Premier David Alward has had time to digest what happened to Dexter and Co. He too has staked a lot on big projects, especially the proposed extension of the east-west crude oil pipeline.

Alward believes the pipeline will transport jobs and prosperity to New Brunswick, because it will connect the western oil fields with the Irving Refinery in Saint John. The proposal has heavy backing, right up to the prime minister’s office.

No doubt many jobs will be created in the construction phase, but it’s not entirely clear how the pipeline will benefit New Brunswickers over the longer term.

It will help to guarantee jobs at the refinery and at the Canaport shipping terminal. Those are good jobs that are worth preserving. But will the pipeline add permanent jobs in New Brunswick? Hard to say.

It will certainly do a lot to enhance the Alberta oil patch. The trouble is, there’s little proof that big oil’s success in Alberta is doing much to spread opportunity outside its borders.

With a lot of marbles on the pipeline project, Alward is trying to sound optimistic about his other, more intransigent challenges. The biggest of those, perhaps even beyond the region-wide quagmire of health care costs, is the stubborn provincial deficit.

In January, Alward said his ministers “have been looking under every rock to find efficiencies in government,” evidently with few tangible results. The province admitted in October that the deficit had bloomed by another $97 million and will top half a billion dollars in 2013-2014.

There will be an election in New Brunswick later in the year, Alward’s Tories are trailing in the polls and the deficit must feel like an anvil around his neck.

It could be worse. Alward could be the premier of Newfoundland and Labrador. Polls suggest Premier Kathy Dunderdale is one of the most unpopular premiers in Canada.

Dunderdale can take some comfort in the fact that she isn’t facing an election any time soon and might have time to rebuild. The local NDP did her a big favour by tearing at its own vital organs this year, undercutting its image as a viable alternative to the Tories and Liberals.  

It’s only in dear old Prince Edward Island that a long-serving eastern government is keeping its head above water. Robert Ghiz and the Liberals might not be every Islander’s cup of tea, but disarray among the Tories suggests Ghiz could call an election tomorrow and walk away with a win.

 Of course, there’s a law that says he can’t do that and will have to bide his time until 2015.

By then, politics on the Island and across the region might look a lot different from the way it looks today.

Dan Leger is a Halifax-based writer and commentator.

Twitter: @Dantheeditor.

Organizations: NDP, Dexter and Co.

Geographic location: New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, East Coast Atlantic Canada Newfoundland and Labrador Halifax Alberta Fredericton Saint John Prince Edward Island

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