HALIFAX — Nova Scotia Liberal Leader Iain Rankin defended his party's record on health care and gender issues Wednesday during the first leaders debate of a provincial election campaign that has yet to reach the halfway mark.
Early in the 90-minute contest, Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Houston and NDP Leader Gary Burrill criticized the premier for failing to deal with a chronic physician shortage that has left almost 70,000 Nova Scotians without a family doctor. The opposition leaders also said the province's nurses were burning out and quitting, a persistent problem they said had been aggravated by the pandemic.
"People will remember the Liberals promised a doctor for all Nova Scotians," Houston told Rankin, referring to a promise made by Rankin's predecessor, former Liberal premier Stephen McNeil. "They failed on that. They didn't really try."
Houston, a 51-year-old chartered accountant, has said a Tory government would spend $553 million during its first year in office to fulfil campaign promises, mostly for improving health care.
Rankin, who at 38 years old is Canada's youngest premier, took aim at Houston's big-spending pledge, arguing the Tory leader wants to "overbuild" in the long-term care sector by promising 2,500 new beds.
Several times, Houston made a point of speaking over Rankin, a move that made some exchanges difficult to understand. For his part, Burrill, a 65-year-old United Church minister, kept his cool and waited for his turn to speak.
The Liberals released their party's health-care platform Tuesday, promising an added $131 million. Rankin has said investments in doctor and nurse recruitment and mental health will build on the nearly $400 million earmarked for health care in the Liberals' 2021-22 budget tabled in March.
Burrill picked up on Rankin's comment: "Did you just use the word, 'overbuild?' Do you not acknowledge that in eight years, the grand total was 57 beds you built?"
Rankin responded that his party's investments in health care and long-term care were sensible. "What we don't need is a competition on who can throw the most money at an issue," the former business manager said.
Later in the debate, sparks flew when Houston called attention to national headlines that appeared earlier this month after a female Liberal candidate alleged party staff had pressured her to drop out of the race because she had previously sold revealing photos of herself online.
Shortly after the election campaign began on July 17, Robyn Ingraham also alleged the party had told her to cite her mental health issues as the reason for her departure, which she did in writing before going public with her version of events.
"Your party forced a young lady to lie about the reason that she was resigning as a candidate and forced her to further stigmatize mental health," Houston said.
"That's bad. That's a disgrace actually."
Rankin wasn't rattled by Houston's harsh assertions. The premier said he was proud of the party's slate of 55 candidates, which includes five African Nova Scotians and comprises 40 per cent women.
"I trust my staff," he said, adding that he had tried three times to speak with Ingraham. "And I'm going to continue to reach out to that individual."
Houston asked Rankin if his staff had told the woman to lie.
"In fairness to Robyn, I'm not going to speak to her through you," Rankin said.
Burrill interrupted the heated exchange to say that when it comes to politics and gender, Nova Scotians will be taking part in the first provincial election in which a party has fielded a slate of candidates mostly comprised of women and gender-diverse persons.
"That party is the NDP," said Burrill, who is contesting his second campaign as leader. "And this is a major accomplishment for the entire political culture of Nova Scotia."
The New Democrats' campaign has repeatedly accused the Liberals of planning to impose hefty budget cuts.
Though Burrill maintained a low key during much of the debate, he was outspoken about the environment and climate change.
"We are talking about an emergency," he said. "That means we need action ... that is bold and means business."
Burrill said an NDP government would make sure that 90 per cent of the province's energy needs would be met by renewable sources by 2030. The other main parties have promised an 80 per cent target.
The Liberals are seeking a third term in office, having governed the province since 2013. Rankin was elected to lead the party in February and has served as a member of the legislature since 2013.
Before the election was called, the Liberals were leading in the polls, having won kudos for their handling of the pandemic.
But the premier stumbled just before the campaign began when he revealed he had been convicted of impaired driving in 2003 and 2005, though he provided few details about the second conviction, which was dismissed. Those events were mentioned only once in passing during the debate.
At dissolution, the Liberals held 24 of 51 seats, followed by the Progressive Conservatives with 17. The New Democrats had five seats, and there were three Independents and two vacancies. Nova Scotians go to the polls on Aug. 17.
After the debate, Burrill said he hoped the debate made it clear that the province has two paths to choose from: contraction through cuts or expansion in areas of need, such as long-term care and child care.
"I hope that we have come out of the debate with that demarcation having become that much clearer," he said.
Rankin said he wasn't surprised by Houston's in-your-face approach. "A lot of negativity from Mr. Houston," he said.
Houston said he was simply relaying the concerns he's been hearing from voters.
"I think we got the message across that there are big problems in health care and the PC party is only one that is talking about real solutions to address them."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 28, 2021.
— With files from Keith Doucette
Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press