Nova Scotia

Little nuance at first PC leadership debate, but Houston emerges as main target

The five people who want to lead the PC Party of Nova Scotia into the next election were called on to answer five policy questions.

90-minute format favoured brevity over substance, quips over quarrels

PC leadership candidates take part in the debate in Middleton, N.S. From left to right are John Lohr, Cecil Clarke, Elizabeth Smith-McCrossin, Julie Chaisson and Tim Houston. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

It took less than 90 minutes for the five Nova Scotia PC leadership hopefuls to lay out their ideas for fixing the serious problems they believe exist in five key and controversial policy areas — health care, education, economic development, clear-cutting and long-term care.

The two-minute-per-question format at the first leadership debate on Thursday in Middleton, N.S., was so fast-paced, the candidates so focused on explaining their positions, there was little time for nuance, let alone disagreement.

It's only in the dying minutes that anyone took direct aim anyone else.

MLA Elizabeth Smith-McCrossin used two of her three 30-second rebuttal opportunities to challenge caucus colleague Tim Houston's assertion that the solution to the current "health-care crisis" is not more money.

"Tim, up till tonight you have continuously talked about that we don't need any more money in health care, that we have enough," she said. "Has your stance changed on that?"

"We spend $4.4 billion on health care," Houston replied. "We have less than a million people. We need to ask the question, 'Why aren't we getting the results?'

"What we need is leadership. We need to refocus how we spend our health-care money. And we can deliver health care to people in this province for $4.4 billion."

Houston, centre, was the main target in the leadership debate. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

MLAs Smith-McCrossin, Houston, and John Lohr, along with Cape Breton Regional Municipality Mayor Cecil Clarke and farmers market executive Julie Chaisson, are vying for the Tory leadership.

They are seeking to replace Jamie Baillie, who was forced out as leader in January over an allegation of inappropriate behaviour, one the party has never explained in detail. The leadership convention is set for late October.

Speaking after Thursday's debate, Smith-McCrossin said Houston's response on health care showed a lack of insight.

"I think it shows he doesn't understand what the real issues are, and it also shows that he hasn't talked to enough Nova Scotians and frontline workers to understand that people are working in bare-bones situations right now," she said.

"They are in dire straits, and they need an investment and they need more money in the system."

Smith-McCrossin, right, challenged Houston on his health-care position. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

Clarke also took a shot at Houston's boast that a majority of caucus members support his leadership bid.

Houston told the roughly 100 party supporters who attended the Middleton event that having that kind of support is a measure of their faith in his candidacy.

"I've seen the failures of government first-hand and I know how to fix them, and that's the majority of the caucus has joined my leadership team," Houston said in his closing remarks.

Seventy-five seconds later, in his closing address, Clarke offered a different perspective on caucus support.

"I think of the great John Buchanan, who had two of 19 caucus members when he set out and then had four back-to-back majority governments."

Cecil Clarke, centre, noted John Buchanan had little support from caucus when he ran for the leadership of the party. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

Afterwards, Clarke explained why he used example of the former Tory premier.

"It isn't about who, in caucus, is supporting a candidate," he said. "It's almost as if because they're supporting, somehow there's momentum.

"The momentum I have is all throughout Nova Scotia, they're grassroots people."