NOVA SCO­TIA:

Premier Stephen McNeil and his Lib­er­als fend off Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tive chal­lenge in tight race

The Hamilton Spectator - - FRONT PAGE - MICHAEL MAC­DON­ALD

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.

DAR­REN CALABRESE, THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

A sign mark­ing a polling sta­tion is seen as a pedes­trian walks past in Hal­i­fax on Nova Sco­tia’s pro­vin­cial elec­tion day on Tues­day.

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