First formal TV debate of Nova Scotia election features testy exchanges

HALIFAX - The leaders of Nova Scotia's three main political parties squared off Wednesday evening over health care, energy and jobs, and occasionally got into testy exchanges during the first formal televised debate of the campaign for the Oct. 8 election.

Liberal Leader Stephen McNeil was challenged by Progressive Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie over his refusal to cut the harmonized sales tax until the province can register surpluses that would make up for the revenue shortfall.

McNeil said his position was reasonable given the state of Nova Scotia's finances. The province is projecting a slim surplus of $18.3 million for this fiscal year.

"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 during the debate on CBC.

"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.

"It's not scaring people. It's being honest, Jamie," McNeil snapped. "It's being upfront and truthful. Try it."

The exchange left NDP Premier Darrell 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 appeared at ease during the debate and dressed more casually than his opponents as he decided not to wear a tie. "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 when the issue of energy prices arose, 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 make it easier for private renewable energy firms to sell electricity directly to consumers.

Baillie, who has committed to freezing power rates for five years, said that's doable despite concerns from critics who say such a measure is not sustainable.

At dissolution, the NDP held 31 seats in the legislature, the Liberals 12 and the Tories seven. Two seats were vacant.

Redistribution means the number of seats in the legislature will drop after this campaign to 51 from 52.

Dexter led the NDP to its first victory in Atlantic Canada in 2009.