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Round two: McNeil pressed on broken promises during Nova Scotia leaders debate

Nova Scotia Liberal leader Stephen McNeil, Progressive Conservative leader Jamie Baillie and NDP leader Gary Burrill participate in a leaders roundtable at Saint Mary's University in Halifax, on May 25, 2017.

Andrew Vaughan/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Tory Leader Jamie Baillie cast himself Thursday night as the only man who can beat Stephen McNeil, while the Liberal premier implored voters to ignore campaign "negativity" and give him a second mandate.

The two, along with NDP Leader Gary Burrill, held a far-reaching and sometimes animated roundtable discussion in Halifax, stripped of lecterns and Oxford-style debate rules.

Burrill elicited a laugh from the audience by framing the Liberal and Tory leaders as squabbling family members, while positioning himself as the clear option for change in Tuesday's election.

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"I coached ball for a long time, and I used to once in a while run into a situation where you had two siblings who were so much alike that they couldn't get along," Burrill said with a chuckle.

McNeil was on the hotseat for much of the night, as Baillie and Burrill criticized his broken promises, including killing the province's lucrative film tax credit, credited for a thriving film and TV production industry.

"It's pretty clear Mr. McNeil didn't understand what he was doing," said Baillie.

But McNeil said the Nova Scotia Film and Television Production Incentive Fund, which replaced the film tax credit, has been a hit. He cited the Stephen King horror series The Mist, which was filmed for the American cable network Spike TV and received $5,927,492 from the new fund.

McNeil was also forced to defend his broken promise that every Nova Scotian would have a family doctor, as health care dominated much of the CTV News debate.

He skirted the question of whether every man, woman and child should have a doctor, and instead said access to primary health care is a top priority.

Baillie said he would improve health care, but refused to make a promise that is "just political."

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Burrill reiterated his view that Nova Scotia is facing a health care crisis that needs an urgent response.

The debate focused on three central themes: Promises and policy, economy and budget, and vision and leadership.

All three talked over each other in the debate's early going, taking up moderator Steve Murphy's invitation to intervene against the other leaders.

While Burrill took some heat over his plan to run back-to-back deficits, he shot back that the "hyper-fixation" on balanced budgets has caused the Liberals to "overlook the needs of the people."

Baillie echoed the NDP leader, noting there has been "too much focus on the day-to-day accounts" rather than long-term planning.

But McNeil shot back that Nova Scotians need to "live within our means" and not pass the buck to future generations.

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Said Baillie: "We're all concerned about costs that get passed on to the next generation."

Murphy asked each party leader to name an opponent's policy they like.

Burrill praised Baillie's mental-health strategy, while Baillie endorsed McNeil's tax cuts on lower-income Nova Scotians.

McNeil focused less on his opponents' policies than their advocacy, mentioning Burrill's work on poverty and Baillie's emphasis on helping those with PTSD.

In their final pitches to voters, McNeil and Burrill sounded familiar themes.

The NDP leader insisted the province can spend to improve its hospitals and schools, while the Liberal premier touted statistics suggesting Nova Scotia is on the right track, and urged voters: "Let's not be dragged down by all the negativity you might hear in this campaign."

Baillie, however, tried a new pitch, casting himself as the only man who can eject McNeil from the premier's office.

"It's pretty clear it's only the PCs who have a chance to replace the government," he said.

Afterwards, Baillie was asked by reporters whether it was reasonable to ask an NDP voter to vote for a Tory.

"I am asking them to look at us," he said. "Even if they haven't voted for us before, because I know we agree on something – that this province needs a change at the top."

But Burrill said Baillie's pitch to New Democrats didn't "ring true" because he stands for things, such as budget restraint, that the NDP is rejecting.

"He (Baillie) is misrepresenting himself, repackaging himself, rebranding himself," he said. "I find it inauthentic."

McNeil was even more scathing in his assessment of Baillie's pitch to voters.

"I thought it was arrogant on his part," he said. "We are all going to take the next four or five days to go out and convince Nova Scotians why we should be the government."

Thursday's contest served as the prelude to the final weekend of the campaign, with polls indicating a tightened race between the incumbent Liberals and the Progressive Conservatives.

The province's voters have not elected back-to-back majorities since 1988 and have recently swayed back and forth between the three main parties, electing the Tories in 2006, the NDP in 2009 and the Liberals in 2013.

Swaying voters in Halifax, with its rich number of ridings, proved key to the Liberal majority in the 51-seat legislature in 2013 and will be no less key this time around with competitive races expected in at least five ridings.

But there are also a number of ridings in Cape Breton, in the province's north and along the South Shore which also could prove vital to party fortunes.

Video: Nova Scotia PC, NDP leaders take aim at Premier (The Canadian Press)
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