(Jean Laroche, Twitter)

Laugh about it, shout about it
When you’ve got to choose
Every way you look at this you lose.

— With thanks and apologies to Paul Simon

If elections are no time to discuss important issues, then leaders’ debates are no place to reach meaningful conclusions about political leadership.

Which is why, on the Wednesday of last week’s leaders’ debate day, I deliberately delayed my afternoon walk just long enough to be sure I would be lost somewhere in mid-stroll — and far from my television screen — when Messrs. Rankin, Houston, and Burrill began hawking their partisan wares.

Who needed the aggravation? Who needed to yell at the TV — and then try to hear yourself think over the din of all those other voices on the screen, also all yelling to be heard over one other?

Who needed to wish they were out for a walk?

I decided to walk that walk instead.

Still, on this day, it seemed impossible to lose myself in the usual unnatural wonders of my urban universe: the never-ending summer roadwork, other people’s house renos, another new condo excavation, the ongoing lack of progress at the construction site of the world’s slowest apartment build at the end of my block, the number of cyclists hogging my sidewalks rather than staying in their new purpose-built bike lanes …  My attention inevitably kept being drawn back to all the campaign signs festooning the lawns in my neighbourhood.

In the few blocks around me — in the middle of NDP leader Gary Burrill’s home constituency, in the beating heart of leftie Halifax — it was easy enough to imagine we will wake up on the morning of August 18 with an NDP majority government.

Travel a few blocks in any direction, of course, and your equally illusory sign-certainty conclusion will probably be quite different.

No matter. On this day, there seemed no escape from the political. Why fight it? Despite my own best intentions and better instincts, I am now, and always have been a political junkie. Even when I know better.

Luckily, there’s an app for that. I managed to fire up CBC Listen and jam my iPods in my ears just as Tom Murphy and Amy Smith were teeing up the leaders’ opening statements.

At one level, I needn’t have bothered.

I could have written most of the script in advance.

Iain Rankin was still the boy in short pants trying to explain why he deserved to sit with the big kids. Tim Houston played the semi-reformed schoolyard bully trying to impress his teachers but still couldn’t resist firing off the occasional cheap shot. Gary Burrill did his turn as the avuncular uncle, mostly ignored by the others who understood he was unlikely to change enough votes to change the larger outcome and so was free to play the adult in the room.

I wasn’t taking notes as I walked, so I quickly lost count of the number of times a leader began his answer to a question with, “Thank you. That’s such a great question, Tom/Amy/Katy/fill-in-the-blank…” and then proceeded to give his standard-issue response. His answer more often than not included a folksy anecdote about someone — usually referred to by their first name — the leader had met on the campaign trail (or who had, more likely, been invented for the occasion by their debate-prep coaches), an angry/frustrated/sad voter who had had to wait too long for an ambulance/couldn’t find affordable housing/…

Each leader had his talking points, and talked his talk. (Thanks, Global’s Rebecca Lau, for keeping track while I was counting steps.)

Liberal Leader Iain Rankin says this is a time of “recovery” and “optimism” and lists what his government has done and plans to do — including a deal for affordable childcare.

PC Leader Tim Houston says it’s time to fix health care and that his party is the only one that has been upfront about how much this will cost. He says he hopes people “like” his party’s promises, and if they do, “hire us.”

NDP Leader Gary Burrill highlighted the need for affordable housing and the “cloud of anxiety and depression,” which means a greater need for mental health support.


Rankin says his party has made targeted investments, including supporting education for health care workers.

Houston says health care is in crisis, and that nurses have “borne the brunt” of this pandemic. He says the Liberals have failed at providing a doctor for every Nova Scotian.

Burrill says many jurisdictions use physicians’ assistants, and Nova Scotia isn’t using that to its advantage.


Rankin says the model of care has changed, but Nova Scotians deserve to see a physician when they need to. That’s why they’ve increased nurse practitioners in the collaborative-style model. He says the pandemic has affected recruitment.

Houston says the government needs to respect health care workers and support them. He says 70,000 Nova Scotians are trying to get access to care. He says his party would improve health care “because you’re worth it” and points at the camera.

Burrill says it’s important to ensure there’s adequate staffing in hospitals and long-term care.


Rankin says that rent control is one tool of many, and that it was useful during the pandemic. Rankin says he “agrees with Tim” that it is a supply issue.

Houston says we need more housing stock and more supply. “We need to encourage the construction of more housing” and would like to encourage more people to enter the trades to achieve that. He says that he does not support rent control.

Burrill says an NDP government would immediately bring in rent control. He says that his opponents have said that rent control doesn’t work, but says it “works for sure.”


Rankin says they were “on the right track before the pandemic hit” and that we need to get back on that.

Houston says his plan for economic recovery means “innovative” ideas, which includes increasing paycheques and a “buy local” program that is part of his party’s platform.

Burrill… says that Nova Scotia has the lowest median income in the country.


Rankin says we will get to $15 minimum wage, but that too suddenly will be hard on small businesses.

Houston says his better paycheque guarantee program would help workers, because if employers have to choose between paying taxes or putting the money towards paycheques, they’ll choose paying their employees.

Burrill says there is no time that a $15 minimum wage has been as important than when a province is in recovery. He says it’s tough to think about strong economy bounce-back without the $15 minimum wage.


Rankin says there is systemic racism in institutions, and he recognizes his white privilege.

Houston says, “we’re three white men up here” and that their political journeys are nothing compared to what women and diverse politicians have experienced.

He says the Wortley Report on street check recommendations need to all be adopted, as well as the Truth and Reconciliation calls to action that are pertinent provincially.


Rankin says we need to listen to people [about Owls Head] — including landowners and community members. He repeats it’s a process and they’re going through it.

Houston says Rankin can’t go around presenting himself as an environmentalist, and “do what you did at Owls Head.”

Burrill criticizes the Liberals for what they did to the biodiversity act. He says they are the author of the “shriveling” biodiversity act.


On the topic of attainable home ownership, Rankin says there is so much in-migration and that we do need to make adjustments for housing affordability.

Houston says the province needs a government with vision that adds to the housing stock, and he plans to do that by adding people in the trades.

Burrill repeats the need for permanent rent control, and says it will strengthen the path to home ownership.


Rankin praises Nova Scotians on how we’ve dealt with the pandemic. He adds he’s becoming a father this fall and he’s optimistic about what the province is doing. “This is our time, this is our future,” he says.

Houston says a “Tim Houston government” would listen to all — no matter their gender, race, faith, sexual orientation, or how they’ve voted in the past.

Burrill says if he’s given the opportunity to govern, these things will happen in Nova Scotia: permanent rent control within a month, a system of same-day mental health clinics, greenhouse gas emissions commitment will be expanded, fees for after school care removed, and staff to patient ratios in long-term care will be regulated.

There are plenty of big and little ideas buried in those talking points that are each worthy of serious debate, of the kind that would allow us to better understand the nuances of each leader’s position, its pluses and minuses, to help us make up our own minds whose ideas we supported… but that wasn’t this kind of debate.

This was debate as spectacle.

And even that wasn’t spectacular.

There were no “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy,” no “You had an option, sir,” moments of high drama in this rather pedestrian affair.

The closest to a “moment” in the Nova Scotia leader’s debate came during a discussion about long-term care beds when Premier Iain Rankin accused Tory leader Tim Houston of wanting to “overbuild” new long-term care beds at a time when demand is expected to decline.

“Did you just use the word, ‘overbuild?’” NDP leader Burrill chimed in in his best United Church minister version of shocked and appalled. “Do you not acknowledge that, in eight years, the grand total was 57 beds you built.”

If I was keeping score — isn’t that the idea? — I would have scored Burrill the winner, Houston a close second, and Rankin a still respectable third.

If I was guessing — and I’m always second-guessing — I’d guess the actual result after Aug. 17, will be Rankin, Houston, and Burrill.

Laugh about it, shout about it
When you’ve got to choose
Every way you look at this you lose

Stephen Kimber is an award-winning writer, editor, broadcaster, and educator. A journalist for more than 50 years whose work has appeared in most Canadian newspapers and magazines, he is the author of...

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  1. Mr. Kimber, I think that your media report is as predictable as the political talking points! Is this all you have to offer?

  2. I like the use quote from the “Mrs Robinson” song and the way you characterize the 3 candidates.

    It seems to me there is some value in hearing the “talking points” since they show some real differences in policy that viewers/listeners may not know if the debate is their main source of information. There was at least some opportunity to expose the flaws in some of them – but as you argue there would be a lot to be gained by digging deeper, exposing the unexamined flaws and weaknesses behind the talking points. I’m curious how you would recommend the debate be structured better Stephen? Richard’s idea of journalists digging more is one essential piece that doesn’t happen often enough.

    One comment on the “avuncular uncle” is that although he may be treated as having no chance of winning government, there is a very real possibility his party could hold the balance of power in a minority government and this could lead to genuine leverage to get some of the NDP’s policies implemented. Even without the balance of power they helped get temporary rent control implemented.

  3. I agree with Stephen’s conclusion there are ideas buried in the talking points that are worthy of debate. I assume you mean informed debate and in that regard the news media have a responsibility to do some digging. Otherwise the talking points just keep coming and people accept stuff like the PC pay cheque guarantee, the notion that our economy is on the “right track” that rent controls will stop development or that we can solve the mental health crisis by giving everybody $1,000 worth of coverage for a private practitioner. So far the mainstream media haven’t been doing much of a job of digging.

  4. “You had an option, sir,” what he was really saying and later on proved was you could have done better

  5. I thought Gary Burrill looked like someone who sees what needs to be done and wants to do it. The other two look like they want to be premier. And although it may not have had the immediate drama of the past election debate lines you mentioned, I thought Burrill had a memorable response to Tim Houston’s absurd plan to let corporations not pay their taxes as long as they promise to give that money to their employees. Said Gary, “We think corporations should do two things all the time; they should pay their taxes to the public and they should pay their employees properly.”

  6. Do you want to live in the world NDP leader Gary Burrill describes in concrete, easy-to-understand language and images? Or must you settle for the pie-in-the sky huffing and puffing of the Tories and Liberals? If enough Nova Scotians choose “the way you won’t lose”, we can escape the pollsters’ and general media’s oft-repeated straitjacket “Sure the NDP sounds good, but they can’t/won’t win.”