The Nova Scotia Liberal Party's new leader, Zach Churchill, says the Progressive Conservatives sold the public "a false bill of goods" when they promised in the last provincial election to fix health care — and he's ready to hold them to account.
"The situation has gotten demonstrably worse, no matter what way you're looking at it," the Yarmouth MLA told reporters following a leadership convention at the Halifax Convention Centre on Saturday night.
"[Premier] Tim Houston used to say there was a crisis when we had 60,000 people without a family doctor — that number, since he's taken over, is up to 90,000. We want to know when change is going to happen. I haven't seen it so far."
First elected in a 2010 byelection, Churchill replaces Iain Rankin at the helm of the party. Rankin announced his intention in January to step down following the party's election loss last summer. The Timberlea Prospect MLA has said he will continue to represent his district in the legislature.
Churchill took 65 per cent of the leadership vote, besting Preston MLA Angela Simmonds, the other competitor in the race. Following the announcement of the result in front of a crowd of about 400 people, Churchill paid tribute to Simmonds and the campaign she and her team ran.
"Just think of the courage of this person: getting elected in the last election, jumping in two feet into the deep end and running for leader and doing so demonstrating her authentic self, representing her principles and her values and running a hell of a campaign."
Churchill later told reporters Simmonds would play "a critical role" in the caucus. He said he'd spend the coming days determining what roles the party's MLAs would fill.
Throughout the leadership race, Churchill presented himself as the experienced candidate ready to hit the ground running and give the party the best chance to return to power when voters go to the polls in July 2025. Simmonds, who was first elected last summer, countered that it was time for the party to head in a new direction, and that her life and professional experience would help attract new people to the party.
Simmonds, who was the first person of colour to run for leadership and just the second woman to seek the Liberal leadership, said she was proud of the work she and her team did throughout the campaign.
"If my grandson feels like he can put his name forward, then I've done my job," she told reporters following the result.
About 3,400 people registered as delegates and could vote online or by telephone, 96 per cent of whom voted. That's fewer than half of the 8,100 delegates who registered for last year's convention that Rankin won. That race featured three candidates, with the winner becoming premier — something that would naturally drive up interest.
Still, Churchill conceded on Saturday that the party he now leads has work to do if it is to regain voter support ahead of the next provincial election. That work includes finding ways to appeal to the general electorate, as well as party members and volunteers.
A report the party commissioned following last summer's election called for an overhaul of the organization.
"We're going to have to build local organizations in every single riding across this province and recruit really capable, strong candidates in every riding and build a platform to address the big issues of our time and sell that to Nova Scotians," said Churchill.
Simmonds said she is committed to the caucus and working to unite members and volunteers who worked for both campaigns.
"I was a fierce competitor, as Zach has mentioned to many people, but I think what he'll find is I'm an even better colleague and friend," she said.
Churchill said he's prepared to press the government on a variety of issues, including affordability and the housing crisis, but he said health care would be a central focus. Following an announcement earlier this week that the province is removing almost all remaining COVID-19 protocols, Churchill criticized the Tories for moving to a monthly update on epidemiology information.
"The public needs information. I think they need that information daily, particularly if we're in the midst of another wave," he said.
With Saturday's result, both opposition parties in Nova Scotia will head into the fall sitting at Province House with new leaders in place. New Democrat MLA Claudia Chender was affirmed as her party's new leader during an event last month.
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