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Nova Scotia Progressive Conservative leader Tim Houston waves to supporters after winning a majority government in the provincial election at the Pictou County Wellness Centre in New Glasgow, N.S., on Aug. 17, 2021.Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

It was supposed to be a sleepy summer campaign that would reward the Nova Scotia Liberals for their handling of the COVID-19 crisis. Instead, Tim Houston and the province’s Progressive Conservatives won their first majority government since 1999 – a stunning upset that may hold lessons for the federal parties out on the election trail across the country.

In four other pandemic-era provincial elections, Canadian voters have stuck with the governing party. That trend ended Tuesday night for the Nova Scotia Liberals, who had been in power since 2013.

The surprise surge by the Tories – who gained 13 seats and took more than 39 per cent of the popular vote – came after Mr. Houston seized on concerns around health care in Nova Scotia, including chronic shortages of family doctors, nurses and long-term care beds. Some polling data had the Liberals 28 points ahead of the Tories at the start of the month-long campaign.

The PCs won 31 seats Tuesday, followed by Iain Rankin’s Liberals with 17. The NDP took six and there was one Independent.

Mr. Houston, a 51-year-old chartered accountant, said his party made history despite predictions from “the pollsters and the pundits” and other “so-called experts” who projected a Liberal victory when the election began.

“They were all writing us off. Well, I wonder what they’re writing right now,” he told supporters on election night.

The race grew tighter as a record number of Nova Scotians used early voting options and mail-in ballots, far exceeding any previous campaign, while voter turnout was 55 per cent. That’s slightly better than the historic low of 53 per cent of eligible voters who cast ballots in 2017.

The surprise election result also suggests polling data is increasingly unreliable, particularly when voters are thinking about life after the pandemic, said Dalhousie University’s Wayne MacKay.

“I think it shows that campaigns do matter,” said Dr. MacKay, a professor emeritus of law. “As the election went on, it became clear the Liberals had the weaker campaign, and the PC’s laser focus on health care won the day.”

As the pandemic drags on, voters may be seeing public-health officials, and not the governing parties, as the real leaders during the COVID-19 crisis, something that could be concerning for federal Liberals, Dr. MacKay said.

“I think voters concluded it’s the public-health folks who got us through the pandemic, and they’ll continue to follow them, regardless of who’s in there politically,” he said.

“They didn’t feel there was any risk in changing governments. While the situation is a little different outside Atlantic Canada, in terms of case numbers, I think there’s a few slightly nervous federal Liberals right now.”

The Tories relentlessly hammered away at the Liberal record on health care, and promised to spend $423-million – more than any other party – in their first year to begin to address problems in the system. They ran a slate of new candidates with backgrounds in health and long-term care, electing six MLAs with résumés in the sector.

The PCs also capitalized on a summer campaign held when many elective surgeries are typically cancelled and rural ERs are going through rotating closings because of staff vacations, to fuel concerns that hospitals are understaffed.

“The Liberals called this election in the summer, and yet seemed totally unprepared to talk about health care,” said Chris Parsons, provincial co-ordinator of the Nova Scotia Health Coalition, a non-partisan, citizen-run group that advocates for public health care. “This just played into the Tories’ hands.”

The Liberals ran a feel-good campaign on the strength of the economic boom under way in Nova Scotia, rising housing prices and the influx of newcomers who are coming in part because the province has handled COVID-19 so well. But that approach also showed a disconnect to voters who saw cuts at their local hospital and couldn’t find a family doctor, he said.

The challenge now for Mr. Houston is that the Tories, who stressed the progressive side of their party over its fiscally conservative roots, will have to deliver on their promises.

Mr. Parsons suggests some of the hospital staffing shortages can be eased by training more Nova Scotians who want to become nurses and doctors, instead of trying to recruit them from elsewhere, and by expanding the use of nurse practitioners and midwives.

But he’s concerned that the Tories plan to privatize more aspects of the provincial health care network, including turning to corporations to operate new, for-profit long-term care facilities and telehealth services. This election also showed that voters have little appetite for austerity measures as the country emerges from the pandemic, Mr. Parsons said.

“The political winds have shifted, and the Liberals totally missed that. They were still speaking in terms of austerity and balanced budgets, things that no one believes in any more,” he said.

Mr. Houston, who went to great lengths to distance his party from the federal Conservatives, told voters there’s no easy fix to the health care challenges facing Nova Scotia. And he says he won’t be able to make the progress he wants without federal help.

“I do not have a magic wand,” he said Wednesday, on a day in which Nova Scotia confirmed nine new cases of COVID-19. “It didn’t all get fixed today because there’s a new PC government, but I want you to know they will be fixed because we are focused on them.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said the Nova Scotia Conservatives last won a majority in 1991. In fact, it was 1999.

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