HALIFAX — For the second time in four days, Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil was forced off message Thursday to defend himself from attacks on gender-related issues.
At a campaign stop in Halifax, McNeil said Liberal communications director Kyley Harris deserved "a second chance" after being handed a conditional discharge for striking a woman in the face during a domestic argument on May 9, 2014.
Harris was a spokesman for McNeil at the time, but was fired after waiting four days to tell the government he was facing an assault charge.
Harris was hired back in 2015 to do research in the Liberal caucus office and is now listed as director of communications for the central campaign in the runup to the May 30 provincial vote.
The matter resurfaced after federal Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose posted on social media Wednesday saying Harris's re-hiring sends a "terrible message," and that Liberal leaders "need to walk the talk on violence against women."
When asked about it Thursday, Nova Scotia Tory Leader Jamie Baillie said McNeil had exercised poor judgment in putting Harris back into his inner circle.
"When the premier chooses to re-employ a person who pled guilty to a domestic assault I have to question his judgment. I think it shows poor judgment," Baillie said. "It sends a terrible message to victims of domestic assault, men and women, who feel the system of government isn't there for them."
In response, McNeil said he was proud of his party's record on supporting victims of domestic violence, but that people shouldn't be held back because of their past actions.
"People deserve a second chance and Mr. Harris is one of those Nova Scotians," he said, while dismissing Ambrose's remarks. "As far as the national leader's comments, that's her comment."
McNeil added that Harris was not part of either his government or inner circle as Baillie had charged.
After pleading guilty, Harris was sentenced to nine months' probation and 30 hours of community service. He read a statement in court saying his actions were "inexcusable and disgraceful."
"I made an unforgivable mistake and I am sorry," he said at the time.
NDP Leader Gary Burrill pointed out Thursday the Harris controversy comes days after the premier drew fire for comments about running women in ridings that were "winnable."
"Mr. Harris's appointment raises honest questions for people, particularly women around the province, and these are questions that it would be reasonable for us to expect Mr. McNeil to answer," he said.
McNeil was questioned Monday about why only 12 of the party's 51 candidates for the May 30 election are women, but the Liberal leader insisted his party "has stood beside women to have them elected in meaningful ridings."
Burrill pointed out 24 of his party's 51 candidates are women, while Baillie stood Monday with 12 female candidates and demanded McNeil apologize for his "thoughtless and dismissive comments."
The back-and-forth over Harris overshadowed the premier's health care announcement Thursday, as he promised $78 million over four years to create and expand 70 collaborative care teams across the province. There would also be a $5 million annual fund for the construction and renovation of collaborative care clinics.
The funding, announced in last week's proposed budget, would go toward hiring nurses, social workers, and mental health workers to work with doctors in collaborative clinics.
"This investment will attract highly skilled medical professionals to our province and provide an economic boost to communities when we expand our social infrastructure," said McNeil.
But he said the Liberals also realize that more doctors are needed now, and that's why the party has made a commitment to hire 50 new doctors a year through another $2.4 million announced in the budget.
Meanwhile, Burrill announced in a Halifax coffee shop that an NDP government would increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020 — helping an estimated 130,000 lower income workers.
Burrill said the implementation plan would be similar to one in Alberta, and would see the current wage of $10.85 raised in three phases. He said it would start with an increase of $1 on Jan. 1, and would be followed by two increases of around $1.57.
"The rest of Canada has been seriously improving the standard of living for the lowest paid amongst us while Nova Scotia has come close to a real standstill on this important measure of economic security and social inclusion," said Burrill.
He said the plan includes a commission on the economy that would consult with businesses, corporations, and not-for-profits to determine how to help them adapt to the wage increase.
Baillie said a Progressive Conservative government would spend $150 million over 10 years to bring high speed Internet service to rural areas which have long done without. The funding would be cost-shared with Ottawa and municipalities, meaning the annual provincial contribution would be $7.5 million.
"It is unfair to expect Nova Scotians because of where they live to be disconnected from an opportunity to make a living, an opportunity to learn and to participate in social media," Baillie said. "In 2017 access to high speed Internet is an essential service that should not be out of reach to any Nova Scotian."
Keith Doucette and Alison Auld, The Canadian Press