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 health-care 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 Jamie Baillie’s Conservatives making a strong showing.
In a speech to supporters late Tuesday, NDP Leader Gary Burrill noted the possibility of a minority government — and said he would be willing to work with any party interested in supporting the NDP’s ideals.
“We have campaigned so hard on the basis of the idea that Nova Scotia needs major investment in the lives of our people, so a government that is prepared to move forward with such investments will find in us a diligent and strong ally,” Burrill told supporters at a hotel in downtown Halifax.
“And a government that fails to move forward such investments will find that it has to contend in a serious way with our opposition.”
Party supporters at McNeil’s election headquarters in Bridgetown cheered as the Liberals were declared the victors. However, party president John Gillis said it was clear the voters had sent the Liberals a message about the state of health care in the province.
“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 five. 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 Baillie took his northern Nova Scotia riding of Cumberland South. 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 mental-heath services.
The McNeil government was also under fire early in its mandate for a series of cuts to seniors’ long-term care and public service organizations, including cutbacks to non-profit groups serving those with hearing loss, eating disorders and epilepsy.
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.
But the health-care issue eventually dominated the campaign.
Baillie made a point of repeatedly telling voters McNeil had failed to deliver on a 2013 promise to make sure every Nova Scotian had access to a family doctor. Almost four years after the premier made that pledge, about 100,000 Nova Scotians are still looking for a doctor.
On the final day of the 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.”
Burrill also said health care was the No. 1 issue when he was meeting voters at the doorstep.
During the campaign, McNeil said his government’s decision to reduce the number of health care authorities to only one would lead to more investment in front-line care. And he said he would improve access to primary care by creating 70 collaborative care clinics, spending $25 million to hire doctors and specialists and expanding tuition relief for medical professionals.
But it was clear McNeil’s promises were coming up against some hard truths.
At the midpoint of the campaign, when McNeil announced he’d spend $78 million over four years on collaborative clinics and would hire 50 more doctors a year, a frustrated 68-year-old retiree arrived at the event to vent his frustration over his wife’s two-year wait for a family doctor.
Earlier in the campaign, about 500 doctors and citizens rallied in North Sydney over a wide range of health-care issues. And the Conservatives went so far as to hold a series of their own health-care rallies during the campaign.
The premier dismissed the move, saying Baillie was just trying to scare people.
But it was clear that the issue took on a life of its own in a province that has a population that is, on average, older than virtually every other province in Canada.
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.”
Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press