Premier un­plugged

‘Change is hap­pen­ing; the ques­tion is do we want to shape it or do we want it to shape us?’

Cape Breton Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY PA­TRI­CIA MACIN­NIS

‘Change is hap­pen­ing; the ques­tion is do we want to shape it or do we want it to shape us?’

This hasn’t been the eas­i­est year for Premier Stephen McNeil.

Af­ter sweep­ing to power al­most two years ago, his gov­ern­ment has taken a now or never ap­proach to the prov­inces fi­nances.

Cut­ting costs and sav­ing money can be a bit­ter pill to swal­low and when you tally up the win­ners and losers, there seems to be more of the lat­ter.

For bet­ter or worse, McNeil re­mains un­fazed. The coun­try boy from Bridgetown is pre­pared to shoul­der the blame when it comes to crit­i­cism be­cause he be­lieves that point­ing this province in the right di­rec­tion is worth it.

The premier re­cently sat down with TC Media to take ques­tions from re­porters and ed­i­tors from Yar­mouth to Syd­ney and all points in be­tween. He opens up about the poli­cies his gov­ern­ment has im­ple­mented, bud­get cuts and those pesky ap­proval rat­ings.

STAMP OF AP­PROVAL

Ac­cord­ing to poll­ster An­gus Reid , McNeil’s all-time high­est ap­proval rat­ing of 66 per cent in June 2014 has plum­meted to 37 per cent, plac­ing him pre­cisely in the mid­dle of the pack of Cana­dian pre­miers, with Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall claim­ing the top spot at 61 per cent and Man­i­toba Premier Greg Selinger at the bot­tom with 23 per cent.

Premier McNeil may not be as pop­u­lar to­day as he was on Elec­tion Day 2013 when he gar­nered 45 per cent of votes and snatched up 33 of 51 seats in the Nova Sco­tia House of Assem­bly to form a Lib­eral ma­jor­ity gov­ern­ment.

Ap­proval rat­ings don’t bother the premier; af­ter all, these “snap­shots in time” don’t mea­sure the will of the peo­ple in the de­fin­i­tive way an elec­tion does.

“We’re the only party in Nova Sco­tia that’s ac­tu­ally more pop­u­lar to­day than we were on Elec­tion Day. We’ve had to make very dif­fi­cult de­ci­sions. We’re the only po­lit­i­cal party . . . who can say that.”

So far, the tough­est of those dif­fi­cult de­ci­sions was slash­ing 320 full-time po­si­tions in the public ser­vice, in­clud­ing the en­tire Depart­ment of Eco­nomic and Ru­ral De­vel­op­ment. The cuts were an­nounced April 9, the day it tabled its bud­get.

“On bud­get day, we gave peo­ple lay­off no­tices,” says McNeil. “I don’t rel­ish that. It both­ered me more than any other de­ci­sion I’ve had to make be­cause peo­ple went home and had con­ver­sa­tions at their kitchen ta­ble s that night that were very dif­fer­ent than the day be­fore.”

His hope is that peo­ple rec­og­nize that the province can only climb out of its eco­nomic slump if belts are tight­ened all around. McNeil points to the rec­om­men­da­tions in the “Now or Never” Ivany Re­port, which call for bold re­sponses to the eco­nomic of pop­u­la­tion chal­lenges fac­ing the province.

“The now or never ap­proach doesn’t mean the rec­om­men­da­tions have to be im­ple­mented to­mor­row,” says McNeil. “The ‘now or never’ was that our at­ti­tude had to change. Just be­cause we’ve been do­ing it that way ( for­ever), doesn’t mean we’ve been do­ing it right.”

BUSI­NESS 2.0

When it comes to how it deals with busi­ness, McNeil ad­mits they had been do­ing it all wrong. Prop­ping up es­tab­lished com­pa­nies and fund­ing star­tups is no longer the busi­ness of gov­ern­ment. On bud­get day, the gov­ern­ment an­nounced it was scrap­ping the Depart­ment of Eco­nomic and Ru­ral de­vel­op­ment be­cause “it wasn’t achiev­ing what peo­ple thought it should achieve.”

A new, leaner Depart­ment of Busi­ness will help sup­port the pri­vate sec­tor by stream­lin­ing ser­vices and sup­port­ing ini­tia­tives that ben­e­fit in­dus­tries as a whole, not in­di­vid­ual com­pa­nies.

“We in­vested in the wine in­dus­try, but not an in­di­vidu al win­ery,” says the premier. “As a province we pur­chased from the feds the coast guard site in Dart­mouth with con­cept of build­ing an incu- ba­tion cen­tre for ocean tech in part­ner­ship with Dal­housie U and the pri­vate sec­tor so that all ocean tech com­pa­nies could have an op­por­tu­nity to cap­i­tal­ize on that piece of in­fra­struc­ture and grow.”

The gov­ern­ment has also raised its in­vest­ment in small busi­ness loans with credit unions from $45 mil­lion to $50 mil­lion, but it has re­moved it­self from the de­ci­sion-mak­ing process.

“We put a guar­an­tee from the province from 75-90 per cent, but we don’t as­sess the busi­ness case. It’s about mak­ing sure we put in place the right in­fra­struc­ture for cer­tain sec­tors and mak­ing sure en­trepreneurs avail them­selves of that cap­i­tal.”

That’s a far cry from how it worked un­der the old depart­ment, says McNeil, where “if the bank said no and the credit union said no, peo­ple used to walk down to the Depart­ment of Eco­nomic and Ru­ral De­vel­op­ment.”

“If lend­ing in­sti­tu­tions don’t think it’s a good busi­ness, why should the tax­payer?”

SE­NIOR’S HEALTH CARE

The Cana­dian Alzheimer’s So­ci­ety has iden­ti­fied a de­men­tia cri­sis as one of the ma­jor public health is­sues fac­ing the county in the next 10 to 30 years. In 2011, al­most 750,000 Cana­di­ans were liv­ing with Alzhemier’s dis­ease and other forms of de­men­tia.

The gov­ern­ment re­cently an­nounced its three-year plan to im­prove care for peo­ple liv­ing with de­men­tia, which aims to im­prove ed­u­ca­tion and ser­vices for both fam­i­lies and care givers.

“We have spo­ken to all our part­ners to lay out 27 items that we can work to­wards and im­prove and one of them is ed­u­ca­tion for fam­i­lies and care give givers to pro­vide them with the sup­port they need and also early de­tec­tion and early di­ag­no­sis,” ex­plains McNeil.

That may spark home fam­i­lies who are now trav­el­ing three or four hours to visit their rel­a­tives in the lim­ited num­ber of se­cured fa­cil­i­ties around the province, but that hope might be short-lived.

In a province com­prised of ru­ral out­posts, it’s im­pos­si­ble to have se­cure fa­cil­i­ties in ev­ery com­mu­nity, says McNeil.

“It’s sim­ply not sus­tain­able to do that. The province is look­ing at ‘do we have the right mix of beds right now. Do we need more? And the ones we have are the meet­ing the right com­bi­na­tions of the de­men­tia strat­egy?”

SO­CIAL SAFETY NETS

More than 64,000 peo­ple across the province live in poverty, ac­cord­ing to 2011 fig­ures from Sta­tis­tics Canada.

In April 2009, the pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment re­leased its Poverty Re­duc­tion Strat­egy, which out­lined a vi­sion for 2020 of break­ing the cy­cle of poverty by cre­at­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for all Nova Sco­tians.

An im­por­tant step to­ward achiev­ing that goal, says McNeil, was ad­just­ing the child tax credit so that 1,300 ad­di­tional fam­i­lies would have ac­cess to it. The gov­ern­ment has also in­vested in so­cial hous­ing, “the sin­gle big­gest thing we can do” for peo­ple liv­ing in poverty, and some­thing close to the premier’s heart.

“My story is well known,” he says. “My mom was wid­owed. Thank god my par­ents bought a house. It be­came a place of se­cu­rity for us. As a par­ent, my mother could take a deep sigh of re­lief...and rest and get ready to fight the chal­lenges of the next day. If you’re hav­ing a dif­fi­cult time mak­ing ends meet with­out hav­ing that place to live, you don’t get a chance to take a deep breath.”

In June of this year, the Nova Sco­tia Gov­ern­ment launched Break­ing the Si­lence, the province’s first co­or­di­nated re­sponse to sex­ual vi­o­lence. Work­ing with com­mu­nity part­ners across the province, it has bud­geted $6 mil­lion over three years to bet­ter sup­port vic­tims of sex­ual vi­o­lence and to ed­u­cate youth. McNeil says he’s en­cour­aged by the re­sponse from part­ners around the province, and that the model used here could serve as a best prac­tice for pro­grams around the county.

“I’m re­ally ex­cited about the buy-in we’re re­ceiv­ing from our part­ners,” says McNeil. “We have an op­por­tu­nity to lead the coun­try; we’re the right size.”

BY LAND AND BY SEA

Main­te­nance of high­way, by­ways and wa­ter­ways take up a fair chunk of the pro­vin­cial bud­get and a sim­i­lar amount of real es­tat e in Nova Sco­tians minds.

In com­mu­ni­ties across the province there are sec­tions of highways re­ferred to by the lo­cals as “deadly.” Be­tween 2007 and 2012, more than 1,200 col­li­sions oc­curred on Highways 101, 103 and 104, with 30 fa­tal­i­ties, ac­cord­ing to a safety au­dit con­ducted on be­half of the province.

In April, Trans­porta­tion and In­fra­struc­ture Re­newal Min­is­ter Ge­off MacLel­lan com­mis­sioned a fea­si­bil­ity study to ex­plore twin­ning and tolling op­tions for sec­tions of the highways in ques­tion. The premier agrees there are “far too many ac­ci­dents,” oc­cur­ring on those sec­tions of high­way, but says com­mu­ni­ties will have to de­cide if tolls are the an­swer.

“It’s re­ally about road safety,” he says. “We’ve had a cou­ple of coun­cilors in Bar­ney’s River who say this needs to be twinned even if it means tolling. Ini­tially, Cobe­quid Pass met with some re­sis­tance, but we don’t hear of the fa­tal­i­ties.”

On the trans­porta­tion by sea front, McNeil says he en­cour­aged by the num­bers re­ported by Nova Star cruises, which op­er­ates the ferry be­tween Yar­mouth and Maine. Last year, the province spent $28.5 mil­lion, which McNeil ad­mits was “too high a sub­sidy.”

“I think ev­ery Nova Sco­tian agrees with that. We started the ser­vice late. By the time we com­mit­ted, all the bus tours had made their com­mit­ments.”

For this sea­son, the province has ear­marked $13 mil­lion for the ferry ser­vice, and will make a de­ci­sion this sum­mer as to which com­pany will op­er­ate the ser­vice next year.

Trans­porta­tion Min­is­ter McLel­lan is cur­rent speak­ing with Nova Star and other op­er­a­tors to de­ter­mine the most cost-ef­fec­tive way to achieve ser­vice go­ing for­ward.

“I don’t want to say cheaper, but we want the same qual­ity for less money,” says McNeil. “It may be with Nova Star, it may be with another part­ner.”

AN ED­U­CA­TION

Ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions across the province have taken a hit in re­cent years, with de­clin­ing en­rol­ments, dwin­dling num­bers of teach­ers and school clo­sures.

The Chignecto-Cen­tral Re­gional School Board re­cently made a de­ci­sion to close three area schools rather than in­sti­tute a hub model as pro­posed by the com­mu­nity.

Those are all dif­fi­cult tran­si­tions for a com­mu­nity, says the premier, but school boards, not gov­ern­ment, have been charged de­cid­ing which schools will close.

“When you go back to the Fowler re­port, which en­gaged com­mu­ni­ties across the province, re­peat­edly — time af­ter time af­ter time — com­mu­ni­ties said that de­ci­sion be­longs with the school boards as close to the com­mu­nity as pos­si­ble. The leg­is­la­tion sup­ported by all three par­ties clearly says the min­is­ter can­not over­turn it.”

Go­ing for­ward, McNeil says com­mu­ni­ties won’t have to rally at the eleventh hour to save schools slated for the chop­ping board. All school boards in the province must pro­duce a strate­gic plan that out­lines any is­sues po­ten­tially af­fect­ing their longterm sur­vival.

“We know the de­mo­graph­ics are chang­ing, but this means com­mu­ni­ties will have ad­vance no­tice,” says McNeil. “If my com­mu­nity school was on the list — it gives me a chance to see there are prob­lems com­ing. Is there a part­ner in that com­mu­nity that will sup­port some eco­nomic rev­enue for that build­ing?”

MU­NIC­I­PAL RE­FORM

School clo­sures are just one of the bat­tles mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties are fight­ing in their ef­forts to de­liver ser­vices. Shrink­ing pop­u­la­tions in ru­ral ar­eas have forced towns around the province to amal­ga­mate, and in some cases, dis­solve al­to­gether. The town of Hantsport lost its sta­tus on July 1 and joined the mu­nic­i­pal­ity of West Hants. The same thing hap­pened with the town of Springhill last year when it dis­solved into Cum­ber­land County.

The county of An­napo­lis ab­sorbed the premier’s home­town, Bridgetown, which had been around for 117 years, of­fi­cially in April. McNeil ad­mits dis­cus­sions around the A-word can gen­er­ate anx­i­ety, but that “peo­ple are be­gin­ning to see it’s not such a scary thing.”

“Be­cause the bound­aries change or you erase a bor­der doesn’t change the iden­tity,” he says.

Go­ing for­ward, mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties will use fi­nan­cial in­di­ca­tors that al­low them to track key per­for­mance in­di­ca­tors and iden­tify is­sues that could af­fect their fi­nan­cial health.

“With that in­for­ma­tion, peo­ple are be­gin­ning to make de­ci­sions about what changes they need to make to sus­tain their com­mu­ni­ties.”

USER FEES

On April 1, most pro­vin­cial user fees for gov­ern­ment ser­vices in­creased by three per cent, but the one for food truck op­er­a­tors jumped a whop­ping 505 per cent – from $38.30 last year to $193.56.

That five-fold in­crease, though dra­matic, is es­sen­tially cost re­cov­ery, says the premier, a model he hopes will be ap­plied to all user fees go­ing for­ward.

“We’re try­ing to get to that point where we re­cover the cost and nowhere in the realm were we to make sure the food safety is­sue was in place,” he says. “This is now com­ing in line with what a res­tau­rant in town would be forced to pay. The ma­jor­ity of user fees we have are not cost re­cov­ery, but we’re grad­u­ally try­ing to move to that.”

At the end of the day, the premier knows he won’t be in this job for­ever, so he’s mak­ing the most of the op­por­tu­nity and guided by the wis­dom of his mother, who died in 2009.

“The night I get de­feated, it will only be me look­ing back in the mir­ror. I bet­ter make sure that I’ve done what is in the best in­ter­ests of all of us.”

BY-ELEC­TION BLISS

If the July 14 by-elec­tion was — as some po­lit­i­cal observers sug­gest — a test of McNeil’s Lib­er­als, the gov­ern­ment passed it hand­ily. The Lib­er­als added two more seats to their ma­jor­ity gov­ern­ment with Cape Bre­ton Cen­tre’s David Wil­ton and Syd­ney-Whit­ney Pier’s Derek Mom­bour­quette win­ning their rid­ings.

But some pun­dits say the Lib­eral can­di­date Tim Ris­seco’s nar­row loss in Dart­mouth South to NDP’s Mar­ian Mancini might re­flect a frag­mented Lib­eral cau­cus, reel­ing from bud­get back­lash and op­po­si­tion to the film tax credit cuts.

In his anal­y­sis of by-elec­tion re­sults on CBC News, Graham Steele, the for­mer fi­nance min­is­ter in Dar­rell Dex­ter’s NDP gov­ern­ment, said the film tax con­tro­versy “rat­tled the Lib­er­als,” and left some mem­bers of the cau­cus “doubt­ing the premier and the fi­nance min­is­ter.”

Not even close, shoots back the premier.

“I have never felt more sup­ported,” he says. “Graham came from a very dys­func­tional cau­cus and I can ap­pre­ci­ate that, but our cau­cus in uni­fied and fo­cused.”

He’s quick to point out that his­tor­i­cally, af­ter de­liv­er­ing the kind of tough bud­get the province did in April, there might have been a dif­fer­ent re­sult.

“Let’s be hon­est, there wasn’t a sin­gle Nova Sco­tian who wasn’t touched by that bud­get. What it shows is that Nova Sco­tians rec­og­nize there are chal­lenges fac­ing this province and they want a gov­ern­ment that will stand up and ar­tic­u­late what the chal­lenges are and what the so­lu­tions and op­por­tu­ni­ties are.”

— with files from John Bran­nen

LAWRENCE POW­ELL/TC MEDIA PHOTO

Nova Sco­tia Premier Stephen McNeil sits at a stone ta­ble with a Celtic games etched into the top. McNeil brought it home from Cape Bre­ton and placed it on the end of a small deck on the spot where his mother’s re­tire­ment mini home had been lo­cated on the fam­ily prop­erty. Stephen McNeil has turned the whole area into a large gar­den in trib­ute to his mother.

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