Tories surge to upset majority win in N.S. election with a campaign focused on health

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HALIFAX — Nova Scotia's Progressive Conservatives surged to an upset election win Tuesday over the governing Liberals after capitalizing on their main opponent's early stumbles and promising a big-spending fix to the troubled health system.

During the campaign, Tory Leader Tim Houston unveiled a left-leaning platform that promised hundreds of millions of dollars in the first year of the party's mandate to increase the number of family doctors, bolster the mental health system and create more nursing home beds.

The message caught on with voters. With five electoral ridings left to call late Tuesday night, the Progressive Conservatives were elected or leading in 31 ridings, with 28 seats needed for a majority in the newly expanded 55-seat legislature. At dissolution the party had 17 seats.

A beaming Houston, who won the leadership three years ago, entered his party headquarters at a sports facility near New Glasgow, N.S., pounding fists with his supporters to the tune of John Fogerty's "Centerfield."

In his victory speech, Houston said the public responded to the solutions he put forward and decided against simply rewarding the Liberals for competently handling the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Regardless of what the polls may say, what we know is that if you provide real solutions to real problems then the voters will pay attention," the 51-year-old chartered accountant told the crowd.

"Not just here in Nova Scotia, but in all of Canada, we proved that just because there is a pandemic doesn't mean government gets a free pass."

As the victory celebrations unfolded, party stalwarts spoke of a huge turnaround from the beginning of the race.

"We're ecstatic," Tara Miller said with a laugh. Miller, a co-chair with the Tory campaign, said the party was able to pull itself up in the polls from far behind earlier this summer.

Houston's party has also become the first to unseat a government in Canada since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Other elections that have taken place during the course of the health crisis — in Newfoundland and Labrador, New Brunswick, British Columbia, Yukon and Saskatchewan — all saw incumbent leaders remain in power.

Liberal Leader Iain Rankin told supporters in Halifax he didn't have immediate plans to step down, despite the resounding defeat. Late Tuesday night, results indicated his party was leading or elected in 17 ridings, down from 24.

"I will continue to lead this party," he said in his concession speech. "I will continue to do whatever I can do to fight for every single Nova Scotian to make sure that we have a voice," said the 38-year-old, who had been Canada's youngest premier.

Voters toppled a number of longtime Liberal cabinet ministers in party strongholds, including the ministers of Health and Transportation, and they brought the Tories back into office for the first time since 2009.

The NDP, led by United Church Minister Gary Burrill, had five seats at dissolution, and four hours after the polls closed party members were elected or leading in six ridings.

Burrill campaigned on a traditionally progressive platform that called for a $15 minimum wage, 10 paid sick days for all workers and rent control.

"We in our party have placed these issues of real people's real lives at the centre of the discourse of our campaign," the 66-year-old leader told supporters Tuesday night.

Before the 32-day race started, the governing Liberals were leading in the polls, having won kudos for their handling of the pandemic. But the party stumbled just before the election campaign began.

Rankin revealed in July he had been convicted of impaired driving as a young man in 2003 and 2005. He provided few details about the second conviction, which was dismissed in court. The lack of disclosure surrounding the second case prompted a series of unflattering media reports.

And in the first week of the campaign, the Liberals faced more negative headlines after a female Liberal candidate alleged party staff had pressured her to drop out of the race because she had previously sold revealing photos of herself on the website OnlyFans. Robyn Ingraham said the party had told her to cite her mental health issues as the reason for her departure on the first day of the campaign, which she did in writing before going public with her version of events.

As the campaign neared the midway point, Rankin was kept on the defensive during a leaders debate that saw Houston and Burrill taking shots at the premier over his record on health care. In particular, Houston criticized the premier for failing to deal with a chronic physician shortage that has left more than 70,000 Nova Scotians without a family doctor.

Houston has said a Tory government would spend $553 million during its first year in office to fulfil campaign promises, mostly for improving health care.

Rankin, who was elected to lead the Liberal party in February, argued that his party's planned investments in health care were sensible. "What we don't need is a competition on who can throw the most money at an issue," the former business manager said during the debate.

Elizabeth Smith-McCrossin was the sole Independent elected. The former Tory was kicked out of caucus for her part in a COVID-19 protest that shut down the Trans-Canada Highway in June of this year, but she nonetheless managed to defeat former Liberal MP Bill Casey, who came out of retirement to attempt to challenge for the seat.

The election featured the return of the protected Acadian ridings of Richmond, Argyle and Clare as well as the predominantly African Nova Scotian riding of Preston, raising the total number of seats to 55.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 17, 2021.

Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press

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