The leaders of Nova Scotia's three major political parties went head-to-head Wednesday over power rates, jobs and health care, and occasionally got into testy exchanges during the only formal televised debate of the campaign ahead of the Oct. 8 election.

New Democratic Party Leader Darrell Dexter and Progressive Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie both tried hard to score points against Liberal Leader Stephen McNeil — the perceived front-runner in the campaign — during the CBC debate.

At times the leaders snapped at each other as they talked over one another to ensure their points were heard.

McNeil was challenged by Baillie over his refusal to cut the harmonized sales tax until the province can register surpluses that would make up for the revenue shortfall.

McNeil said his position was reasonable given the state of Nova Scotia's finances — the province is projecting a slim surplus of $18.3 million for this fiscal year.

"Every Nova Scotian listening here today knows that if they reduce the revenue coming into their house, they're going to have a problem meeting all the commitments they've made," he said.

"If Mr. Baillie is going to reduce the revenue coming into the province of Nova Scotia, what hospitals is he going to cut? What wait times are going to grow? What schools are not going to be funded — because you can't have it both ways."

Baillie interjected: "You're scaring people into paying the highest taxes."

That comment caused McNeil to retort in one of the more memorable moments of the debate: "It's not scaring people, it's being honest Jamie. It's being upfront and truthful. Try it."

Leaders snipe at each other

The exchange left Dexter shaking his head, looking amused, before he took issue with Liberal and Progressive Conservative plans to slash the number of health boards in the province.

"They pretend that that's going to save them some money," said Dexter, who appeared at ease during the debate and dressed more casually than his opponents in an open-neck shirt, without a tie.

"What we know, in fact, is that whenever you create these centralized super bureaucracies, they actually cost more money and not only that, they throw health care into chaos. They have their own versions of kind of going back to the way things used to be done. We've all lived through this too many times."

Asked after the debate whether he got frustrated from the fire he took from Dexter and Baillie, McNeil replied: "There's no question I was the target tonight, but I didn't feel frustrated at all. I think it's important that if you are accused of something, or there's an accusation put there, that you don't let it go unchallenged."

Dexter, meanwhile, said he decided not to wear a tie because he wanted to be comfortable.

"I think in the end it's really clear that it provides the contrast that I actually do stand apart from my two colleagues," he said.

Baillie was asked about his most memorable exchange with McNeil and whether he felt he was getting under the Liberal leader's skin.

"I think it is important that Nova Scotians see the way that their premier will conduct themselves," he said. "These are important issues but we ought to be able to disagree in a respectful way not to get angry and huffy."

On one thing that would make Nova Scotia a better place a year from now:

Jamie Baillie: "They will have more money in their pocket they will have a lower HST and power rates that are frozen and stop going up. They will have that money to spend locally in their own economy to create real jobs here at home in the best way that that can be done by having our economy growing again from the ground up."

Darrell Dexter: "It's access to primary care. Opening nurse-managed clinics means that they'll be able to get in and have access to primary care. It also means that it will free up time for other doctors in the communities, they'll be able to see more patients."

Stephen McNeil: "I can guarantee that we’ll be taking $46 million off our power rates if elected premier of the province of Nova Scotia by removing the NDP electricity tax, the efficiency tax, that both Mr. Dexter and Mr. Baillie believe should be paid for by ratepayers. We believe it should be taken off power bills and be legislated that the utility pays for that efficiency through their profits."

On power rates:

Jamie Baillie: "For Nova Scotians who are tired of getting a shock with their electric bill every January — that’s over for the next five years. They know under our detailed five-point plan, that we can actually freeze the price of power and I know there are some on this stage tonight who say that this can’t be done but I say it has to be done."

Darrell Dexter: "Everybody knows there's no rate freeze fairy out there that's going to be able to freeze power rates. It only means that there will be higher rates later on."

Stephen McNeil: "Municipal utilities in this province won the right to purchase power from anyone they so choose. Last night in the Valley, Berwick, representing the municipal utilities, [it was] announced the Municipality of West Hants will be introducing buying energy directly from a wind producer in Ellershouse, 16 megawatts, allowing competition to drive down power rates for the municipal utility people. Why can't the rest of us have the same luxury?"

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With files from The Canadian Press