Was Darrell Dexter right?

Metro/Jeff HarperThen Premier Darrell Dexter answers questions in this file photo.

Perhaps Darrell Dexter was right. I mean the circa-2009 Darrell Dexter who — flushed with electoral victory and oozing political hubris — unleashed his freshly anointed pocket-calculator brigade on the question whether to keep propping up the Yarmouth-Portland ferry.

The number of passengers had been in steady decline (165,000 in 2002 to 75,000 in 2009), government subsidies in even steadier incline ($1.5 million in 2006 to $6 million in 2008). It was unsustainable.

So Dexter cut the government lifeline. The service sank, but with traces. Cancelling ferry service was politically explosive in southwest Nova Scotia, which needed even declining ferry tourism revenues to survive.

So circa-2012 Darrell Dexter — no longer victory-flushed, his government now desperately seeking its own lifeline — commissioned a study “to clearly define the requirements for a viable ferry service between Yarmouth and the United States.” That led to a “considerable-uncertainty,” hail-Mary recommendation to relaunch the service, which led to a tentative deal with the operators, which led to … before the NDP could sign the contract, the voters tossed them from office.

Which left Stephen McNeil’s new government to claim credit or assume blame for whatever happened next. What happened is not what anyone hoped for. Spring was colder and longer than expected; Maine’s government less willing to come through with an expected loan guarantee; paying passengers fewer in number than projected; discounts to lure them steeper than budgeted; Arthur an unplanned-for, post-tropical schedule scuttler; and that lucrative warm-winter route for the ferry to offset expected summer losses still just a dream.

Last week, the Nova Scotia government advanced the struggling ferry’s operators another $1.5 million. Since it stuttered into service three months ago, the government has forked over all $21 million it had budgeted to bring the service to break even over the next seven years. And McNeil can expect to pony up considerably more before he’s done.

The Liberals, predictably, blamed the NDP devils for the details. But McNeil’s Liberals, like Dexter’s NDP, decided the gamble was worth it.

The lesson in the end may not be about who’s to blame but the reality that there are no easy answers in a small province with too few resources and too many problems.

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