Premier Stephen McNeil and his Liberals fend off Progressive Conservative challenge in tight race
HALIFAX — Nova Scotia voters gave Premier Stephen McNeil a second shot at governing on Tuesday, handing his Liberals an election victory after a term marked by two balanced budgets, labour strife and a rising chorus of complaints about an overburdened healthcare system.
It wasn’t immediately clear if it was to be a second majority government — or a reduced minority.
Three hours after the polls closed, the Liberals were elected or leading in 24 ridings, the Tories were elected or leading in 18 and the NDP were elected or leading in nine ridings.
At least 26 seats are needed for a majority. There were tight races across the province, with the Conservatives making a strong showing.
Party supporters at McNeil’s election headquarters in Bridgetown cheered as the election was declared for the Liberals.
Party president John Gillis said he was pleased with the Liberal win, although its size was still unclear.
“I think at this point we would have preferred to be a little further ahead than we are,” he said.
Gillis said it was clear the voters had sent the Liberals a message about health care.
“Health care was a big issue for many Nova Scotians,” he said.
“It certainly made an impact in some areas, particularly in Cape Breton. As the government, majority or minority, we must face that and we must react strongly to it.”
At dissolution, the Liberals held 34 seats in the 51-seat legislature, the Progressive Conservatives had 10 and the NDP 5.
There was one Independent and one seat was vacant.
McNeil, the former owner of an appliance repair business in the Annapolis Valley, was re-elected in his riding of Annapolis, while Progressive Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie also won the northern Nova Scotia riding of Cumberland South. NDP Leader Gary Burrill won his seat, Halifax Chebucto, the riding he chose to contest after winning the party leadership last year without a seat.
When the 30-day campaign began, the Liberals held a comfortable lead in the polls, as they had for much of their mandate. But the gap narrowed slightly as Baillie repeatedly complained about doctor shortages, emergency room closures and a lack of mentalheath services.
For his part, McNeil boasted about an improved economy, two consecutive balanced budgets and a penny-pinching approach to public spending that enabled his government to table a spring budget that offers a modest tax cut for low- and middle-income earners.
McNeil, whose Liberals won their first majority in 2013, said the tax cut would not have been possible were it not for his determination to rein in wage increases within the public sector.
However, that commitment led to ugly standoffs with the province’s health-care workers and public school teachers.
There were protests at the legislature, two brief strikes and back-to-work legislation that the unions condemned as draconian.
While McNeil and Baillie both promised four more years of balanced budgets, Burrill presented a radically different approach. He campaigned on a platform that called for adding close to $1 billion to the province’s accumulated debt over the next four years, mainly to improve health care and education.
Burrill, a United Church minister, has said his party was inspired by Justin Trudeau, whose Liberal party won the 2015 federal election by, among other things, pledging to spur the economy through deficit financing.
But the provincial Liberals labelled Burrill a “hard left” politician, while a Tory spokesman called the NDP platform a “reckless spending orgy.”
In the two months before the election campaign, the Liberals attempted to soften their image by spending tens of millions of dollars amid a flurry of daily, feel-good announcements.
On the final day of the election race, Baillie again returned to a theme that he said was resonating with voters at the doorstep.
“Everywhere I go in Nova Scotia, people tell me that they are frustrated and afraid because of the state of our health-care system,” Baillie told a rally in Dartmouth. “Everyone acknowledges there is a crisis in health care — everyone except Stephen McNeil.”
In particular, Baillie made a point of telling voters McNeil had failed to deliver on a 2013 promise to make sure every Nova Scotian had access to a family doctor. About 100,000 are still looking for a doctor.
McNeil led the Liberals to victory in 2013 when the party defeated Darrell Dexter’s NDP government — the first New Democratic government east of Ontario.
A sign marking a polling station is seen as a pedestrian walks past in Halifax on Nova Scotia’s provincial election day on Tuesday.