Election debate: N.S. Liberal leader on the defensive over health care and sexism

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HALIFAX — Nova Scotia Liberal Leader Iain Rankin defended his party's record on health care and sexism 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 Liberal premier for failing to deal with a chronic physician shortage that has left 70,000 Nova Scotians without a family doctor. The opposition leaders also said the province's nurses were burning out, a persistent problem they said had been aggravated by the COVID-19 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 thousands of new beds.

At several points during the debate, Houston made a point of going on the offensive and speaking over Rankin, a move that made several 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 to bolster the system. 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 about long-term care beds and retorted with an incredulous tone: "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 been selling 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 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. What do you say to that?"

Rankin 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 pounced again and spoke as the premier was trying to respond, asking 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, maintaining his composure.

Burrill interrupted the heated exchange to say 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 that includes a majority 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 if they are elected to govern.

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 COVID-19 pandemic.

But the premier stumbled just before the campaign began when he revealed he had been convicted of impaired driving in 2003 and again in 2005, though the second conviction was dismissed. Those events were mentioned only once in passing during the debate, but no details were discussed.

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.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 28, 2021.

Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press

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