“Health care has been neglected for eight years under the Liberals,” Progressive Conservative leader Tim Houston told a Halifax Chamber of Commerce audience yesterday. “Big spending is necessary to fix it and I’m willing to pick up the bill and pay for it.”

The PCs would spend an additional $430 million a year on health care to bring down wait times and provide more staff and beds for nursing homes. That’s on top of $553 million worth of promises in their election platform.

NDP leader Gary Burrill said Nova Scotia’s path to economic recovery after the pandemic hinges on “an expansion of spending” by government. The NDP has promised to release a full costing of its platform, which includes substantial investments in long-term care and mental health, a $15 an hour minimum wage, permanent rent control, and free before and after school care for children.

Iain Rankin’s Liberals are also making big spending promises during this election campaign, including a $30 million infusion over the next nine years for the Centre of Ocean Ventures and Entrepreneurship in Dartmouth, announced yesterday.  

The Liberals say their election platform contains $455 million worth of promises but that doesn’t include a pre-election spending spree, when hundreds of millions of dollars rained down in a couple of months.

So which party should you trust to manage the economy for the next four years? How would their approaches differ? That’s essentially what Halifax Chamber of Commerce president Patrick Sullivan asked the three leaders during a 90-minute “conversation” on Zoom. Their answers may surprise you.

“In eight years of government, we haven’t once increased taxes or fees,” said Rankin. “We need to make sure that we are living within our means. The spending that is proposed by both opposition parties are in the billions — adding structural deficits that we cannot incur right now. I heard Gary (Burrill) reference a supposed cut, there are no cuts to services under this government.”

Burrill continued to press Rankin on how a Liberal government that projects a provincial budget that will be $209 million smaller next year can get that accomplished without cutting government programs and services. “Show us how,” Burrill challenged. 

Burrill reminded the audience of cuts to the film tax credit and layoffs at the Department of Rural and Economic Development when the Liberals replaced the NDP Dexter government eight years ago. And Burrill challenged Rankin’s four-year commitment to balance the budget when other Canadian provinces estimate it will take six years to get back on track after the jolt from COVID-19. 

Houston claimed a PC government would balance the budget within six years. He asked the Chamber of Commerce audience to support a PC policy idea designed to put more money in workers’ pockets at a time when the cost of living is on the rise. 

“We can’t keep doing things the same way,” said Houston, a chartered accountant. “Under the Better Paycheque Guarantee, corporations will be forced to make a choice. Do they want to leave the money they paid in corporate taxes with the government, or, do they want to get half of that back and give it to the working families in this province?”

Parties differ on mental health services

COVID has heightened public awareness of mental health issues and to their credit, all three political parties are proposing to expand access for people to get help. 

Both the Liberal and NDP platforms commit to spending millions of dollars annually to open new walk-in mental health clinics to provide counselling. The Liberals are talking about eight clinics attached to regional hospitals at a cost of $4 million a year; the NDP are proposing a network of 14 mental health clinics (uncosted) that would provide same-day counselling. 

The Progressive Conservatives are offering a different strategy to tackle the problem of access. People with private health insurance can usually access the services of a psychologist or psychiatrist more quickly than those who must wait for an appointment through Nova Scotia Health, the publicly-funded system. A Houston government proposes “opening the billing codes” so mental health professionals may bill the government directly for seeing patients who do not have private health insurance to cover therapy sessions.

“Investments in mental health are prudent investments,” said Houston. The PC platform estimates it will cost $102 million a year to provide universal mental health care regardless of someone’s income. 

“Ill-considered” and “not cost-effective” were the words chosen by NDP leader Gary Burrill to describe the PC plan. 

“In public mental health services, our average cost for an hour of treatment is about $80 an hour; in private psychological services, the cost is double that,” said Burrill. “If we provide MSI billing numbers for private psychological services, we will create a situation where there will be an exodus of therapists and counsellors from the public to the private sector and we will have worse wait times than we have today. I see this as an idea that sounds good but is misdirected.”

And while Burrill is no fan of Houston’s mental health policy, the PC leader was equally blunt about the NDP promise to make rent control a permanent feature of the Nova Scotia landscape.

“Gary, I admire your passion and the housing crisis is real,” said Houston. “If rent control was the single bullet that would solve it, I’d be onboard with it. But it’s a complicated issue and the only solution for the housing crisis is more houses. So working with the municipalities, the non-profits, and people in the industry to make sure there is more housing is the solution. That won’t happen overnight and the Liberal government should have seen it coming”.

Rankin said Liberals support the recommendations of the Nova Scotia Housing Commission, which determined rent control would, in the long-term, prevent investments in older housing stock and bringing on new supply. Rankin’s platform commits to $25 million over two years in “incentives” for the building of 900 affordable housing units. That’s about $28,000 per unit, about equal to the current subsidy.

Too little, too late say his opponents.

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Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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  1. $25 million over two years to produce 900 units at a cost of $28,000.00 per unit???It would appear that this calculation was made with only apartment construction in mind. If so, what has rural N. S. to look forward to as their piece of this pie? This ” ‘ incentive’ ” is for the builder with no obligation to assign X-number of units as (permanently) affordable. This is simply throwing more money at something, and the incentivizing is not at all nuanced. As for the ” ‘hundred of millions of dollars that rained down in a couple of months’ “- the forecast is for ‘more rain’.