HALIFAX - The final face-to-face encounter between the leaders of Nova Scotia's three main political parties covered well-worn ground Monday, ranging from their differences on whether corporate handouts create sustainable jobs to getting power rates under control.
But when asked if it is ever OK to break an election promise, the three leaders found themselves answering from unique positions during what was billed as a televised leaders forum on CTV.
For NDP Premier Darrell Dexter, the question served as a reminder of his government's decision to raise the harmonized sales tax by two percentage points shortly after it was elected on a platform in 2009 that promised no tax increases.
It was a decision that had to be made, he said, after widespread public budget consultations because government revenues needed to go up as the economy faced its worst downturn since the 1930s.
"We came in at a time when we were starting to experience the greatest recession since the Great Depression," he said.
After pre-budget consultations, Dexter said the decision was made to raise the HST to 15 per cent, which it will begin rolling back to 13 per cent in two stages starting next year.
"Then (after consultations) we took a very straight-forward approach," Dexter added. "We knew we had to raise revenue."
Liberal Leader Stephen McNeil, who began the campaign as the acknowledged front-runner, said his platform is based on a balanced approach that he can achieve without breaking the promises he is making during the 31-day campaign.
McNeil said the Liberal platform, estimated to cost $46.7 million annually over three years, would increase government spending by 0.5 per cent, a realistic goal as the province's finances don't allow the party to make lavish spending promises that it knows it would not be able to keep.
"All of us know that we are in a deficit situation now," he said. "We are not on the fiscal footing that we need to be on."
The NDP government is predicting a surplus of $18.3 million in its $9.5 billion 2013-14 budget, but McNeil has cast doubt on the forecast.
Progressive Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie says voters need to hear from their political leaders a plan that is achievable.
"It is our job to tell Nova Scotians where we want to go and, quite frankly, Mr. Dexter and particularly Mr. McNeil, they are making millions of spending promises every day," he said.
The Tories have said their commitments would save Nova Scotia $200 million annually. They estimate their new program spending would cost $47.8 million in their first full year in office and rise to $62.5 million by the fourth year.
Monday's encounter marked the fourth time the three leaders have debated each other directly during the campaign, which is entering its final week before election day on Oct. 8.
At times, the three men spoke over each other as they sat in a semi circle around a table, almost elbow to elbow. Just as he did in last week's formal televised debate, Dexter was the only leader to go without a tie, wearing an open-neck shirt under his sport coat.
Dexter's campaign is based on seven broad commitments that he says won't cost Nova Scotia more than $34.4 million annually.
As he did at the start of the campaign, Dexter acknowledged that the NDP hasn't achieved everything it promised when it came to power 4 1/2 years ago as he appealed to voters to allow his government to continue what it has begun.
"I know we have not accomplished everything you hoped for, no one is more aware of that than I am," he said.
"Do we continue this progress, even if it's not everything we hoped for?"
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