Despite polls, Liberals whistle past economic graveyard

There were a couple of items of interest in the latest quarterly Corporate Research Associates (CRA) poll[1] on political preferences in Nova Scotia. First off was the piece making the headlines – the finding from polling carried out last month that support for the McNeil Liberals has reached the lowest level since they were elected in October 2013. Given all of the kerfuffle about the mismanaged health system, it’s no surprise that Liberal support has dropped.

A bit more interesting is the rise of the NDP from a distant third to a virtual tie with the Official opposition. And perhaps most significant is the drop in the government’s approval ratings and Stephen McNeil’s best premier ratings. Those numbers are getting dangerously (for the Liberals) close to where Darrell Dexter and the NDP were in CRA polls prior to their rude dismissal in the 2013 election.

CRA had the Dexter government with an approval rating of 42% in August of 2013. The Liberals were at 46% last month. There’s more of a gap on best premier – Dexter sat at an inglorious 19% in August 2013 while McNeil was at 28% in November. But McNeil’s was the lowest rating during his tenure as Premier, and down by 25% from a year ago.

It is a given that one should not put too much faith in a single poll, particularly one like this latest, with a high number of undecided. However, CRA has been conducting it’s quarterly surveys for decades and the results going back to 2005 can be viewed on its website. There’s a remarkable correlation between the survey results and political outcomes.

McNeil may already be preparing to take his leave anyway, but a couple more polls like the one released last week may put others in a McNeil-exit planning mode.

The state of the political horse race is item one of interest from the CRA poll. Item two is what Don Mills, CRA president and Nova Scotia’s long-time go-to pollster, had to say about the reason for the sagging support for the Liberals. To quote a political strategist from an earlier time – it’s the economy, stupid, not just in Nova Scotia but across Atlantic Canada.

No new jobs

“Generally speaking we trail the country in economic growth and have for a long time so the creation of jobs is limited,” Don Mills told the Chronicle-Herald. “If your cost of living goes up but your wages don’t go up, it doesn’t lead you to be that happy with life, so it’s hard on governments in those situations.”

There are several metrics for economic growth, although comparisons between the Maritimes and the country as a whole are skewed a bit by the impact of the drop in oil prices. Compared with the oil-price-depressed national picture, the relative numbers for GDP and wages are not too bad. But when it comes to job creation, the picture in this region is bleak, making Don Mills’ comment about trailing the country in economic growth something of an understatement.

As of  Statistics Canada’s November labour force report, 587,000 jobs had been added across the country in the previous two years. In the Atlantic Provinces, over that same period, there were 8,400 fewer jobs. The region was pushed into negative territory by Newfoundland and Labrador, where the oil price slide helped to reduce employment by nearly five per cent. But even with Newfoundland taken out of the calculation, job growth in the three Maritime Provinces over the period remained practically non-existent – less than 3,000 over two years. Trailing in growth is one way of putting it – not even in the same race may be a more accurate depiction.

If Mills is correct and people are beginning to blame government for their economic malaise, Liberals in the region and in Ottawa would be wise to start taking the issue more seriously.

So far, all they have come up with is a modest program to increase immigration and a tag – the Atlantic Growth Strategy – to hang on announcements of national programs. And there was nothing coming out of this week’s autumn meeting of Atlantic Premiers to indicate that the reality of two years of negative job growth has penetrated the Premiers’ bubble.

They marked the Halifax meeting with a three-page communiqué mentioning the new – regulation of cannabis – and the tried and true – partnerships, red tape reduction and the ocean economy. And the document started off with the bold claim that the Premiers are “working together to grow the economy (and) create jobs.”

Somebody needs to tell them to work harder.


[1] The polling numbers are part of the CRA Atlantic Quarterly®, an independent, quarterly telephone survey of Atlantic Canadians, and are based on a sample of 800 adult Nova Scotians, conducted from November 1 to 30, 2017 with overall results accurate to within ± 3.5 percentage points, 95 out of 100 times.


About Richard Starr

RICHARD STARR has had careers as a journalist, public servant, broadcaster, political staffer and freelance policy adviser. He is author of numerous newspaper and magazine articles, appearing in everything from Atlantic Insight to Atlantic Progress. A lifelong student of Maritime history, Starr is married to playwright and former MP Wendy Lill. They live in Dartmouth.
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