First formal TV debate of Nova Scotia election features testy exchanges

Keith Doucette
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HALIFAX - Nova Scotia Liberal Leader Stephen McNeil found that being the front-runner can make you the quarry in an election campaign as he became the target of attacks from both his opponents Wednesday night in the first formal televised leaders debate before voters cast their ballots Oct. 8.

Darrell Dexter, from left, Jamie Baillie and Stephen McNeil prior to Wednesday's debate at CBC in Halifax.

At times, McNeil exchanged testy barbs with his Progressive Conservative counterpart, Jamie Baillie, while NDP Leader Darrell Dexter looked on, bemused.

Dexter became the first New Democrat to lead his party to victory in Atlantic Canada in 2009 and he used the debate to give a history lesson, telling voters his two challengers represent parties who left an economic mess that the NDP is trying to clean up.

The 90-minute debate televised by CBC centred on health care, energy, care for seniors, the future of schools faced with dwindling enrolment and what role the government should play in helping create jobs.

Baillie and McNeil often squared off and at one point the Tory leader took McNeil to task over his refusal to cut the harmonized sales tax until the province can record surpluses that make up for the revenue shortfall.

McNeil cast his position as reasonable, dismissing a projected surplus of $18.3 million forecast by the NDP government for this fiscal year as a fallacy.

“Every Nova Scotian listening here today knows that if they reduce the revenue coming into their house, they’re going to have a problem meeting all of the commitments they’ve made,” McNeil said.

“So if Mr. Baillie is going to reduce the revenue coming into the province of Nova Scotia, what hospital is he going to cut? What wait times are going to grow?

“You can’t have it both ways.”

Baillie accused McNeil of “scaring” people into believing that they should be paying the highest taxes in the country, which prompted a curt reply from the Liberal leader in one of the more memorable moments in the debate.

“It’s not scaring people. It’s being honest, Jamie,” McNeil snapped. “It’s being upfront and truthful. Try it.”

The exchange left Dexter shaking his head before he took issue with Liberal and Tory plans to slash the number of health boards in the province.

“They pretend that’s going to save them some money,” said Dexter, who took the casual approach by deciding against wearing a tie, standing apart from the other two party leaders in his open-neck shirt and sport coat.

“What we know, in fact, is that whenever you create these centralized super bureaucracies, they actually cost more money and not only that, they throw health care into chaos.

“They have their own versions of kind of going back to the way things used to be done. We all lived through this too many times.”

Dexter also picked up on that theme while discussing the province’s energy future, saying it was the legacy of past Liberal and Tory governments that chained Nova Scotia to fossil fuels.

McNeil has promised to shift the $46 million cost of funding programs run by Efficiency Nova Scotia from customers to Nova Scotia Power and he wants to make it easier for private renewable energy firms to sell electricity directly to consumers, which he describes as breaking the utility’s monopoly.

Baillie went after the Liberal plan to break Nova Scotia Power’s monopoly.

“No one believes there are going to be three or four Nova Scotia Powers running around our province after the next election. There will be one,” said Baillie. “You can’t name one place in North America where this has actually worked.”

He defended his plan to freeze power rates for five years as doable, despite concerns from critics who say it’s not sustainable.

Asked after the debate whether he got frustrated from the fire he took from Dexter and Baillie, McNeil replied: “There’s no question I was the target tonight, but I didn’t feel frustrated at all. I think it’s important that if you are accused of something or there’s an accusation put there that you don’t let it go unchallenged.”

Dexter, meanwhile, said he decided not to wear a tie because he wanted to be comfortable.

“I think in the end it’s really clear that it provides the contrast that I actually do stand apart from my two colleagues,” he said.

Baillie was asked about his most memorable exchange with McNeil, and whether he felt he was getting under the Liberal leader’s skin.

“I think it is important that Nova Scotians see the way that their premier will conduct themselves,” he said. “These are important issues but we ought to be able to disagree in a respectful way not to get angry and huffy.”

Going into the campaign, the NDP held a commanding majority in the legislature, holding 31 seats. The Liberals had 12 seats, the Tories seven and two seats were vacant.

Redistribution drops the number of seats in the legislature to 51 from 52.

Organizations: NDP, Tory, CBC Nova Scotia Power

Geographic location: Nova Scotia, Atlantic Canada, North America

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Recent comments

  • observing it all
    September 26, 2013 - 15:02

    In my opinion we will have a Liberal minority government, therefore I will be voting PC, because the Liberals won't even speak to Ross from the upper corner of the house. At least Pat Dunn will be communicated with.

  • Pictou East voter
    September 26, 2013 - 14:31

    After what I saw on the debate I hate to omit this but Dexter was by far the superior debater. He was focused , consistent and by far the better of the three. MacNeil who i was going to support was a no show with no substance what so ever. Baillie was just to arrogant with his CA attitude telling Nova Scotians how stupid they are if they don't do as he says. That's why they are and will remain in third place. what scares me the most here is what if NS elects MacNeil what representation will be have here in PC if we elect PC's or NDP just saying

  • Pictou East voter
    September 26, 2013 - 14:30

    After what I saw on the debate I hate to omit this but Dexter was by far the superior debater. He was focused , consistent and by far the better of the three. MacNeil who i was going to support was a no show with no substance what so ever. Baillie was just to arrogant with his CA attitude telling Nova Scotians how stupid they are if they don't do as he says. That's why they are and will remain in third place. what scares me the most here is what if NS elects MacNeil what representation will be have here in PC if we elect PC's or NDP just saying

  • PictouCentreVoter
    September 26, 2013 - 11:53

    For my money, this debate showed they were tied. They were all losers.

  • Garfield Forrest
    September 26, 2013 - 10:24

    There’s nearly two weeks left and that is plenty of time to either win or lose this election. Darrell Dexter clearly won the debate last night by simply telling the truth, explaining his position when answering questions and did not have to raise his voice to do it. He was composed, competent and capable and epitomized, typified and exemplified exactly what it takes to be the premier of Nova Scotia, besides that he was the winner.

    • PictouWestVoter
      September 29, 2013 - 10:31

      Garfield Forrest, Dexter may have won the debate in your eyes, but he has already shown Nova Scotians that he cannot lead this province, by reducing education by over 60 million dollars that's not doing anyone any favours. And all this spending that he's promising is really to get votes, like the ferry in southwest nova, wow election is coming we better do something here!! I for one will NOT be voting NDP, in my eyes they have ashamed Nova Scotia and over spend in everything. Oh and did I forget the EXTRA 2% they put our taxes up as soon as they took office and they said they wouldn't!! That 2% tax this province never had, that 2% that the Federal government took away!! And the Dexter and his stogies went in with their hands out and took it! This is the highest taxed province in North America, Partly thanks to the NDP for rasing it up more!