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