09/10/2013 09:34 EDT | Updated 11/10/2013 05:12 EST

NDP Premier Darrell Dexter defends economic record in face of opposition attacks

HALIFAX - Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter defended his record on economic development in the face of opposition criticism Tuesday that his NDP government too easily handed out public money to the private sector.

Dexter said he would continue to provide financial incentives to companies if re-elected because Nova Scotia must compete with other provinces for investment.

"You cannot do away with incentive programs to bring business here," Dexter said during a roundtable discussion televised by CBC, the first head-to-head encounter of the three party leaders during the Oct. 8 election campaign.

"We have to compete. If we don't compete, then Nova Scotians are going to be left with a lesser fate than they deserve."

Dexter said he doesn't know where Liberal Leader Stephen McNeil stands on the issue and at one point questioned him directly on it.

"Mr. McNeil, would you actually cancel the economic incentives for business to come to our province?" he asked in one of their more lively exchanges.

"What we would have done, Darrell, is that we would have invested in sector development," McNeil replied. "We wouldn't have gone out handing blank cheques."

McNeil cited the province's non-repayable loan to Irving Shipbuilding for the $25-billion federal shipbuilding program as an example of a failed policy. He questioned the government's rationale for providing the $260-million assistance.

"I think that if the Irvings had walked into any lending institution in Canada or anywhere with that contract, they would've been able to secure that loan," McNeil said.

Progressive Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie also took issue with the Irving loan.

"Tell people like Mr. Irving, one of the richest Canadians, and the others, 'Look, we don't have a big cheque for you like Mr. Dexter used to have,' " Baillie said. "I think it's time that we cast away the old ways."

Economic development has been one of the major issues in the early days of the campaign.

The Nova Scotia Fish Packers Association has clashed with the government over a $500,000 loan given to the Blue Wave Seafoods plant in Port Mouton last month to protect jobs. The association reportedly said it couldn't understand why the government would provide the loan when the province has too many seafood processing plants.

Earlier in the day, Dexter promised to continue a tax credit for digital media companies beyond its scheduled expiry next year, though he would not say how long the extension would be.

McNeil said a Liberal government would eliminate interest on provincial student loans, a measure he estimates would cost the province about $2.5 million annually.

Baillie reiterated his party's promise to boost Nova Scotia's population to one million by 2025, a plan that would involve attracting about 50,000 more people to the province based on Statistic Canada's population estimate in 2012.

McNeil and Baillie both plan to release their campaign platforms Wednesday. Dexter released his party's platform Friday, a day before the election was called.