Nova Scotians headed to the polls Aug. 17

Nova Scotia’s 41st general election campaign is officially underway.

N.S. Liberal Party Leader Iain Rankin, who became premier in February, met Saturday with Lt.-Gov. Arthur LeBlanc to dissolve the Nova Scotia legislature. Election Day will be Aug. 17.

“This province is at a pivotal moment and we need to continue to make the right decisions for workers, for seniors, for families and for all Nova Scotians,” Rankin told reporters gathered outside Government House in downtown Halifax.

“This election will be about how we best position the province for a strong economic recovery, one that focuses on investments in infrastructure and green technology and renewable energy. And I couldn’t be more optimistic about the potential of this province.”

The announcement comes after weeks of funding announcements across the province, including plans to build hundreds of new long-term care beds and an agreement with the federal government to bring affordable child care to the Nova Scotia.

‘It’s time,’ Rankin says

Rankin addressed the fact the election will happen during a provincial state of emergency related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Nova Scotia has eight known active cases, as of Friday, and Rankin noted the province is in Phase 4 of its reopening plan.

“It’s time,” he said. “We need to talk to the province about our ideas and our optimistic vision for the future. I think there are contrasts in what the other parties are proposing.”

Heading into the campaign, Rankin’s Liberals held 24 seats in the legislature, the Progressive Conservatives held 17 seats, five NDP-held seats, three Independents and two vacancies.

Rankin, who was elected leader of his party in February — succeeding the retiring Stephen McNeil — will be looking to earn the Liberals their third successive mandate in what is the 38-year-old politician’s first campaign as leader.

Nova Scotia Liberal Party leader Iain Rankin, left, and his wife Mary Chisholm, walk to Government House on Saturday morning. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

This will also be the first election for the Progressive Conservatives with Tim Houston as their leader, while Gary Burrill leads the NDP into a campaign for the second time.

Burrill’s party has scheduled a launch event for today at noon, with Houston and his party scheduled to kick off their own campaign at 2 p.m. AT. A Liberal event is also scheduled for 6:30 p.m. AT. All of the campaign kickoffs are taking place in Halifax.

New seats, lots of retirements

Regardless of the result, the makeup at Province House following the vote will look different, given the return of four seats for the so-called protected districts of Argyle, Clare, Preston and Richmond, and the creation of new seats to reflect population growth and redistribution in certain areas. In 2017, voters elected 51 MLAs. It will be 55 this time.

Also notable is the number of retirements by veteran MLAs heading into this vote. Thirteen people are not reoffering, including 11 Liberals, one New Democrat and an Independent.

Lori Turnbull, an associate professor of political science at Dalhousie University and director of the school of public administration, said some of those seats will naturally fall to the party that’s held them, but others might now be in play.

“Having all of those people — a lot of them ministers — a lot of those sure things step aside, I think, gives Rankin a bit of an opportunity to put his own stamp on the party, to recruit his own candidates who are loyal to him and don’t see this as just a continuation of the McNeil government,” said Turnbull.

“But also, that’s a lot of work for the party. It’s a lot of recruitment of candidates, it’s a lot of training of people, a lot of bringing that up to speed. I think it’s possible we’ll see quite a few shifts.”

Challenges and opportunities for all parties

Having an election in the summer and against the backdrop of COVID-19 will be challenging for all parties, said Cape Breton University political scientist Tom Urbaniak. It won’t be a traditional campaign in the sense that there won’t be big rallies and opportunities to gather lots of people together, meaning it could be a quiet affair.

The Liberals might calculate that as an advantage, given that almost all the political profile in the province has fallen to Rankin via COVID-19 briefings. But Urbaniak offers a bit of caution to that theory by pointing to 2003, the last summer election in Nova Scotia.

“It seemed like a bit of a sleepy campaign. There weren’t galvanizing issues in that particular election, and yet the votes moved. The voter intentions moved and John Hamm emerged from that election with a minority.”

It might not be a long campaign, but Urbaniak believes there is still enough time, combined with Rankin’s limited experience as leader, for Houston and Burrill to potentially gain ground.

Concerns about voter turnout

With no galvanizing issue heading into this campaign, Urbaniak expects the NDP and Tories to aim at areas where they perceive Rankin and the Liberals to be weak, including long-term care, health care, housing and poverty.

Voter turnout in the 2017 general election hit an all-time low of 53 per cent and Turnbull worries the factors at play could lead to even lower participation this time.

“I think this campaign is going to suffer for momentum,” she said.

“People are checked out with the summer. We can finally do things. Asking people to switch on to provincial politics for a while is probably — not everybody is going to do that.”