HALIFAX – Liberal Premier Stephen McNeil fended off multiple attacks on his record Thursday as Nova Scotia’s major-party leaders clashed over health care, education and the economy during the first televised leaders debate of the campaign.
During the 90-minute back-and-forth, Progressive Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie and NDP Leader Gary Burrill targeted McNeil’s broken promises on doctors and the film tax credit.
But McNeil brushed off the barrage with confidence, a generally calm demeanour and an ability to hold the floor. He pointed to his achievements while in office.
“Let’s not turn back now,” he said, looking into the cameras during his closing remarks. “We are in a time where we can make strategic investments and continue to build what we’ve accomplished.”
Still, his opponents pointed to what they painted as his penny-pinching, top-down style with teachers and other public-sector unions while in government.
Both Baillie and Burrill wove into the debate their disapproval over McNeil’s handling of issues while in power, especially on health care.
Baillie questioned McNeil’s 2013 promise that every Nova Scotian would have access to a family doctor.
“You promised them a doctor,” Baillie told McNeil, who cited a number of other promises he’d been able to keep.
Baillie said one of the hardest calls he’d had to make was to Kim D’Arcy, whose husband, Jack Webb, died Feb. 1 after he had languished for six hours in a chilly emergency-room hallway and was bumped from his room by another dying patient during five days of struggles in Halifax’s largest hospital.
“We need more doctors. We need them urgently,” Baillie said.
Burrill asked McNeil if he would admit the province has a health care crisis.
“Do I believe there’s a crisis? No,” McNeil said. “Are there challenges? Of course there are.”
McNeil defended his record, saying the province’s health system has improved during his term, and his government has taken measures to train and bring more doctors to Nova Scotia.
His government reduced administrative costs by merging health authorities, he said.
McNeil said a re-elected Liberal government would invest in collaborative care teams to ensure all Nova Scotians have access to primary care.
He also defended attacks on his labour relations record, arguing he has to represent all taxpayers at the negotiating table.
“Being premier you need to strike a balance,” McNeil said. “You need to make sure that not only can you afford the wages you are prepared to talk about, but you need to make sure you have room to make the investments Nova Scotians require in their communities.”
Burrill said teacher morale “is at an all-time low,” and promised to reopen negotiations with the province’s teachers, cap class sizes and hire more specialists.
“Let’s give teachers the real discipline and attendance policies they deserve and let’s get mental health into classrooms,” Baillie said.
Baillie criticized Burrill’s promise to make community college tuition free.
“Making education free means we’re going to train people to go somewhere else,” he said.
The debate featured no obvious knockout blows, however, and a calm McNeil later told reporters he felt he did what he needed to do.
“Nova Scotians expect their premier to look at all the circumstances and make decisions that they believe are in the best interest of all Nova Scotians, defend those decisions and talk about what the future looks like … and that’s what I did tonight,” he said.
Baillie was asked whether he had done enough to make Nova Scotians consider the Tories at the polling booth.
He said the debate was about presenting his party’s long-term vision for creating jobs, while drawing a contrast with “Liberal mistakes” over the last three-and-a-half years.
“I think he (McNeil) still has a lot to answer for, quite frankly, but for me today was about showing people that we have a more positive way forward.”
The debate was a first-time experience for Burrill, who held his own as the NDP tries to rebound from a stinging election defeat in 2013.
“I’ve worked harder for less,” he quipped to reporters.
Burrill said for him the debate was about presenting two fundamentally opposed views on the best way to get the province moving.
“We have two parties that support the view that developing a budget surplus is the most important sign of a government’s competence and a party — us — that takes the view that what’s most important is the needs of the people,” he said.
Nova Scotians go to the polls May 30.