Of the three main party leaders, only PC Leader Jamie Baillie will be on familiar ground during tonight’s CBC Leaders’ Debate.
He’ll enter studio 60 with the same job he had in 2013 when he faced off against Stephen McNeil and NDP Premier Darrell Dexter: to try to convince voters they should replace a sitting premier, and that the other option is politically less palatable.
Although that would seem to give him an edge over his political rivals, he’s downplaying it.
“I’m going in as an underdog,” he told CBC News Wednesday. “And I think that’s the right spot to be in.”
The debate will air from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
McNeil running on his record
By contrast, Liberal Leader Stephen McNeil enters this first head-to-head debate in the 2017 campaign as the one with a record to defend. During his previous leadership debates, he was the one on the attack.
In 2009, as leader of the third party in the Nova Scotia legislature, he went into the debate trying to knock the wind out of an NDP campaign which appeared to be sailing towards certain victory against the PC government of Rodney MacDonald.
As leader of the Official Opposition in 2013, McNeil’s attack focused on the NDP record, also promising lower power rates if elected. Although the Liberal leader was the focus of many exchanges, as the perceived front-runner, he didn’t have a record in government to defend. He does now, but is trying to convey the impression that it’s a strength, not a weakness.
“I’m being judged on the last four and a half years. That night will be one of those moments in time where Nova Scotians will continue to assess me as their premier and this team. And I would tell you that I would put our record and our team up against any team in Nova Scotia.” he said.
Burrill: least to lose
This will be Gary Burrill’s first election debate as leader. Without a seat in the Nova Scotia legislature — he lost it in the 2013 vote — this will be the voters’ first chance to see him debate the others head-on.
As a United Church minister, he’s a gifted orator but is untested in the format of a televised election debate, which puts a premium on sharp retorts or heated exchanges. It’s likely his goal will be more modest: to introduce himself to a majority of Nova Scotians, many of whom likely didn’t know his name until three weeks ago.
He admits the pressure is on.
“Well pressure sure, it’s important. It’s a very important moment. The election is pressure because it’s important. It’s a big moment.”
Despite the pressure he says feels, Burrill has the least to lose of the three leaders. His party had only five seats when the House was dissolved and forming government is a long shot for the NDP, still rebuilding after the disastrous results in 2013.
Election stakes high for McNeil, Baillie
It’s McNeil with the most to lose: government and likely his job as Liberal leader if his party were to lose power in the May 30 vote.
But Baillie’s job as leader is also on the line during this campaign. Just eight days after the vote, he will mark the seventh anniversary since he launched his bid to lead Nova Scotia conservatives. A second failed attempt to win the premier’s job will have him and others in the party seriously considering their options.
In 1998, Baillie watched as his political mentor and friend, former PC Leader John Hamm, force Liberal leader Russell MacLellan into an agonising seven seconds of silence during a leader’s debate. He’s hoping to deliver a similar near-knockout blow during this debate.
McNeil will be hoping to do what he did in his last leaders’ debate — solidify his party’s lead in the polls to win the Liberals another mandate. The goal is a majority win, though the last premier to win back-to-back majorities in Nova Scotia was John Buchanan in 1988.
Where to watch:
CBC Nova Scotia News hosts Tom Murphy and Amy Smith will moderate the 90-minute, commercial-free debate from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. AT which will be broadcast: