Burrill, Houston land punches on penny-pinching Rankin

Iain Rankin sounded very much like his deficit-obsessed predecessor Stephen McNeil during tonight’s Nova Scotia leaders’ debate.

The Liberal leader accused the NDP’s Gary Burrill and the Progressive Conservatives’ Tim Houston of wanting to rack up “billion-dollar deficits.”

And he rejected criticism of his plan to eliminate the province’s pandemic-enlarged deficit in just four years.

“Somebody’s got to pay for all this spending,” Rankin said. “We are prepared to spend when we need to … (but) we don’t have endless amounts of money.”

Burrill, who hammered the Liberal government’s austere financial approach, called Rankin’s penny-pinching “a piece of fiscal foolishness” that would “choke off recovery.”

Rankin cited his government’s pre-pandemic record of four consecutive balanced budgets, but his opponents pointed out that was done while the province had one of the highest poverty rates in the country and the lowest median income.

Burrill and Houston each landed several stiff punches on the Liberal leader during the 90-minute debate. Rankin, on the other hand, appeared listless, wooden, and inauthentic.

But the latest opinion polls give the Liberals a commanding lead. And their leader probably did just enough in the debate for that not to change too dramatically.

Not surprisingly, all three leaders presented the election the same way they did on the day the campaign began.

“This election is about our recovery,” Rankin said in his opening remarks. “The choices we make now will impact us later on.”

“Nova Scotians are united on one common thing,” Houston offered. “We need to fix health care.”

“This election is about real people and their real lives and getting a government that puts them front and centre,” Burrill said.

Houston proved to be an energetic and agile debater. He repeatedly took Rankin to task on his government’s record, especially on health and long-term care.

“What happened at Northwood is a black mark on our generation,” the PC leader said about the 53 first-wave deaths at a Halifax LTC facility. “It’s a stain on our generation.”

But Houston’s strong performance was in service of a deeply flawed platform that would let down working people, starve the government of much-needed revenue, and allow taxpayer dollars to boost corporate balance sheeets.

Burrill was less feisty than his Tory counterpart but equally effective. Like Houston, he embarrassed the Liberal leader on long-term care, a serious matter in a province with a disproportionately large number of seniors.

“Do you not acknowledge that, in the eight years in which your party has been in power, the grand total of new nursing home beds that were built is 57?” Burrill scolded Rankin. “Is that not a fact?”

“We have more underway,” the Liberal leader responded sheepishly. “And we have been investing in home care. Nova Scotians, if they can, want to stay at home.”

Rankin was at his least convincing when responding to the debate’s final question, which was about Nova Scotia being the only province in the country without fixed election dates.

Burrill and Houston both pledged to institute fixed election dates.

Rankin declined to give up the power to manipulate the province’s electoral calendar.

“If we had a fixed election date, we would have had our election during the third wave,” he offered. “So I think we need that flexibility.”

The debate can be viewed in its entirety here.