Nova Scotia

N.S. Liberal Party leadership hopefuls meet in first debate

Nova Scotia Liberals got their first chance to see the party’s two leadership candidates in action during a debate Thursday evening in Halifax.

Zach Churchill and Angela Simmonds are vying to be the party's next leader

Nova Scotia Liberal Party leadership candidates Zach Churchill, left, and Angela Simmonds participated in their first debate Thursday in Halifax. (Nic Takushi)

Nova Scotia Liberals got their first chance to see the party's two leadership candidates in action during a debate Thursday evening in Halifax.

Yarmouth MLA Zach Churchill and Preston MLA Angela Simmonds fielded questions on topics including health care, education, affordability and the environment in the hour-long event hosted at Mount Saint Vincent University.

Churchill leaned on his experience as a cabinet minister for eight years in the former Liberal government as he talked about the need to enhance preventive care and look for ways to sustainably shore up an overburdened health system.

"The vast majority of expenses in our health-care system are on acute care, when people are the sickest, when they are in our ICUs and need life support," he said.

"We have the highest rate of lung cancer in the country [and] we don't do early lung cancer screening here in Nova Scotia."

A need to be inclusive

Throughout the evening, Simmonds, who was first elected last summer, talked about the need to broadly consult on issues. Communities that have been traditionally marginalized or are disproportionately affected by negative health and education outcomes must be given the support required to succeed, she said.

"If we have a community that doesn't actually want to go to the doctor because they don't feel welcome, they don't feel inclusive, then that's a problem, too," she said.

"We have to understand and address the gaps. We have to make sure that we're building a community, an environment that's trusting and welcoming of everybody."

Simmonds said that extends to people who move to Canada with health-care experience in other countries, but struggle to get credentials to work in hospitals here.

Where the focus should be

Neither candidate has floated many policy ideas so far in the leadership race. Churchill dipped a toe in those waters Thursday as he discussed precious metals extraction and the role that could play as an economic development generator while helping the transition to a greener economy.

Although neither candidate made any direct criticism of the other on Thursday, Churchill took aim at Premier Tim Houston and the Tory government several times during the debate, criticizing their management of the pandemic and accusing the Tories of selling "false promises" during the election about fixing health care.

"They're governing from week to week based on where they think the public mood is going to be," he said.

"We are going to have an opportunity to demonstrate to Nova Scotians that we are the long-term thinkers. We're not going to be the party that's only thinking in four-year political cycles, but about what the needs of this province are going to be now and long-term."

Getting to know you

Simmonds, meanwhile, said there would be time to take on Houston and hold his government to account in the lead-up to the next election, once Liberals select a new leader in July.

The focus right now, she said, needs to be on building up the party by re-engaging volunteers and supporting electoral district associations.

"Right now we need to think about our renewal," she said.

"We need to think about being innovative and keeping our youth here and engaging our seniors."

The debate also included several getting-to-know-you questions. Simmonds said the most recent book she read was Becoming, by Michelle Obama, while Churchill is reading The Price of Tomorrow, by Jeff Booth. Churchill said the historical figure he'd most like to share a meal with is former U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt. Simmonds did not provide an answer to that question. 

The in-person debate, which was also live streamed, had a crowd of about 75 people that was capped due to COVID-19 protocols. Harbr co-founder Ashley Kielbratowski served as moderator.

The next debate will be in May in Cape Breton, followed by one more in June in a yet-to-be-determined location.



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