Nova Scotia

Liberal leadership candidates all pledge to increase income assistance rates

The three men vying to be the next leader of the Nova Scotia Liberal Party and premier of the province all say income assistance rates are too low and they are committed to increasing them.

Final Liberal-sanctioned debate featured questions posed by party members

Iain Rankin, Randy Delorey and Labi Kousoulis are all running to lead Nova Scotia's Liberal party, replacing Premier Stephen McNeil who is stepping down. (CBC)

The three men vying to be the next leader of the Nova Scotia Liberal Party and premier of the province all say income assistance rates are too low and they are committed to increasing them.

The question about assistance rates was asked during the third and final party-sanctioned leadership debate on Wednesday, using a format that allowed party members to submit questions.

Labi Kousoulis said he's committed to increasing income assistance, but said addressing issues such as child poverty would take more than that. The MLA for Halifax Citadel-Sable Island said a recent report that says one in four children in the province lives in poverty should be troubling for everyone.

During a post-debate interview, Kousoulis noted the government has increased rates, removed claw backs and fully funded a standard household rate, but that's clearly not made enough of a difference.

"One thing this campaign has taught me as I've gone across the province is although we've had a lot of economic success in areas, there's a lot of areas that don't feel it at all," he said.

"We can talk about the lowest unemployment rate in our history, but when I'm in Springhill and they have high unemployment, it doesn't matter to them because they're not feeling it."

Tackling equity issues

Ian Rankin said along with increasing income assistance rates, other programs that are supposed to help people get out of poverty need to be reviewed to ensure they're doing as much as possible.

The Timberlea-Prospect MLA noted that even within the issue of poverty there are equity issues, where Mi'kmaq children often experience much higher poverty rates than children from other backgrounds.

"It's not just one or two policies that will help us tackle this issue," he said.

"We need to make sure that we're collaborative and it would be a very high priority for me to take this on."

Antigonish MLA Randy Delorey said there are often systemic barriers when it comes to lifting people out of poverty and those need to be addressed along with raising income assistance rates.

"We need to ensure that people have a roof over their head and can put food on their table," he said in a post-debate interview.

"I think all Nova Scotians would agree with that. So we have to make sure that we do bring forward policies and investments that are going to help achieve those objectives."

Environment a more prominent issue

All three candidates said it is too soon for them to be able to say how much they'd like to see rates increased by, although Kousoulis and Rankin both said they'd begin making changes to assistance rates in the next budget, if elected. Delorey said he could not make that promise without knowing how much leeway there is in the budget-making process at the time he possibly becomes premier.

The environment was also discussed far more on Wednesday compared to previous debates.

Rankin has made the issue central to his campaign since launching and last week Kousoulis released his own plan for the environment. Although Delorey has yet to release an environment plan, he said one would be coming ahead of next month's vote.

Delegate registration deadlines loom

Several times throughout the debate, Delorey steered the conversation toward the next general election and who was best equipped to take on the Progressive Conservatives and NDP, framing himself as the candidate most up to the task.

Not surprisingly, Kousoulis and Rankin both disagreed with that view following the debate, with each touting their own platforms and ability to lead the party to a third consecutive election win.

Thursday marks the deadline for new members to join the party and become delegates. Jan. 12 is the deadline for existing party members to register as delegates. The party's new leader and next premier of Nova Scotia will be announced during a virtual convention on Feb. 6.