The leaders of Nova Scotia's three major political parties spent as much time chastising one another as they did explaining their parties' priorities during the first head-to-head encounter of the election campaign.

Progressive Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie, New Democratic Leader Darrell Dexter and Liberal Leader Stephen McNeil all agreed voters are turned off by partisan sniping, but spent many minutes doing just that in a 40-minute live roundtable discussion on CBC News.

"We're going to continue to draw the contrast between the positions that we have and of course, the positions of the other parties," said Dexter.

"I don't know if it means going negative."

Baillie then defended a statement released by the Progressive Conservatives, calling McNeil a "chicken" for turning down a second opportunity for a televised discussion.

"You should be prepared to come here and put out your own ideas, exactly what you would want to do and how you would pay for it. When you don't do that, I think you are letting the people of Nova Scotia down," he said.

ns-leaders-discussion-4col

The leaders of Nova Scotia's three major political parties traded barbs during a roundtable discussion with CBC News hosts Amy Smith and Tom Murphy. (CBC)

"The fact of the matter is, we're all running for premier. We're not running for bystander-in-chief."

McNeil said he "chuckled a little bit" when he heard the insult directed at him.

"I thought it was interesting that the leader of the Conservative Party talks about tone and talks about doing things differently and then goes to what would happen in a schoolyard," said McNeil.

"We would be chastising and punishing our children for that behaviour."

Economic development in the spotlight

Dexter, meanwhile, defended his record on economic development in the face of criticism that his NDP government too easily handed out public money to the private sector.

Dexter said he would continue to provide financial incentives to companies because Nova Scotia must compete with other provinces for investment.

"Mr. McNeil, would you actually cancel the economic incentives for business to come to our province?" Dexter asked in one of their more lively exchanges.

"What we would have done, Darrell, is that we would have invested in sector development," McNeil replied.

"We wouldn't have gone out handing blank cheques."

McNeil cited the province's non-repayable loan to Irving Shipbuilding for the $25-billion federal shipbuilding program as an example of a failed policy. He questioned the government's rationale for providing the $260-million assistance.

"I think that if the Irvings had walked into any lending institution in Canada — or anywhere with that contract — they would've been able to secure that loan," McNeil said.

Baillie also took issue with the Irving loan.

"Tell people like Mr. Irving, one of the richest Canadians, and the others, 'Look, we don't have a big cheque for you like Mr. Dexter used to have,'" he said.

"I think it's time that we cast away the old ways."

The No. 1 issue

McNeil and Baillie both plan to release their campaign platforms on Wednesday. Dexter released his party's platform last week, a day before the election was called.

Here are their thoughts on the No. 1 issue facing Nova Scotians right now:

Darrell Dexter: "I think it's a simple fact that economic and social prosperity are tied together and we need to invest, we need to continue to attract business into this province. You cannot do away with incentive programs to bring business here. Every premier in this country is out there every day trying to attract business into their province, in most cases they have incentive programs far bigger than anything we could muster. We have to compete. If we don't compete, then Nova Scotians are going to be left with a lesser fate than they deserve."

Jamie Baillie: "Life has become too unaffordable. Highest taxes, highest power rates and our economy is flatlined. That's why what we need to do, what we're talking about, is addressing that head on. Lowering taxes, freezing power rates for five years so no more jobs need be lost and changing the way the province is run instead of doing things in the same old way."

Stephen McNeil: "This election, in my view, is about trust. Nova Scotians have to determine which party is laying out a platform that they can trust that's going to be delivered and it's won about by striking a balance. Yes, we have the highest taxes, we also have some of the lowest funding in the public education system, we have some of the highest wait times in all of Canada when it comes to knee and hip surgery. Nova Scotians are looking for balance, they're looking for the social safety net, the social environment that we as Canadians are so proud of and will be there when we need it, but also a government that is investing in a wise way around economic development that is not picking winners and losers but is actually developing sectors and allowing the entrepreneurs to go out — take that information and create the good jobs that can be created in the province."

With files from The Canadian Press