by Stephen Kimber on April 14, 2014 | No Comments
Could Stephen McNeil’s read-my-lips election promise to “save you $46 million per year” on your power bills become his defining, Darrell-Dexter-like, no-new-taxes/no-program-cuts, dead-on-the-doorstep electoral moment?
During last year’s election campaign, the Liberals’ cross-their-heart pledge was straightforwardly specific: if you elect us, we will eliminate the efficiency tax on your electricity bill and force Nova Scotia Power’s fat-cat shareholders to pay for energy efficiency out of their inordinate profits. Period. Full stop.
The irony is they probably didn’t need to make that promise.
Just as Darrell Dexter’s victory in 2009 depended more on our disgust with the Tory devils we knew than on the NDP’s unkeepable promise to solve Nova Scotia’s fiscal woes without either cuts to programs or new taxes, Stephen McNeil’s Liberals won this time because they weren’t the now-discredited NDP, not because they promised to save us four dollars a month on our power bills.
The double irony is that, while McNeil’s power rate promise may not have gotten him elected, his failure to keep it could lead to his defeat.
Which may help explain why the Liberals were at such pretzel-twisting pain last week to claim their convoluted new legislation to transform the highly successful, independent Efficiency Nova Scotia into a hopefully successful, independent non-profit utility named… well something else, but operating under the brand name Efficiency Nova Scotia is “actually going to end up being a more positive experience for power bills, quite frankly, and a bigger savings for ratepayers.”
As Energy Minister Andrew Younger delicately put it, “we have come up with a slightly different way of addressing” the Liberal campaign promise.
You see, there’s this one-year deferral of accounting for the $35 million NSP will spend on efficiency program next year, followed by eight years recovering those costs plus interest… Oh, yes, and then there’s the $37 million NSP will “contribute” to upgrade electrically heated homes for low income earners — or is that the same? — for which NSP will get (s-s-h-h-h!!) tax relief. And then there’s…
Does your head hurt yet?
Perhaps that’s the idea.
The real question, ultimately, will be whether Nova Scotians, in the electoral fullness of time, believe their power bills are lower — or higher, or unchanged — because of all this Liberal jiggery-pokery.
We will see.
by Stephen Kimber on April 7, 2014 | No Comments
The battle is over. It ended shortly after seven Friday morning when a marathon legislature session culminated with passage of the reassuringly entitled Essential Health and Community Services Act, forcing 2,400 Capital Health District nurses back to their stations.
With its passage, the larger war for the future of labour relations in this province was joined.
The new law blanket-covers close to 40,000 health and community services workers, including nurse-members of both the NSGEU and the NSNU, other hospital employees, those who work in homes for seniors, youth and people with disabilities, paramedics, even 9-1-1 operators.
The legislation requires employers and unions to agree on what services are essential before any job action begins. Unions or employers face fines of $100,000 for the first day’s violation, $10,000 for subsequent days. Individuals could be penalized $1,000 on day one and $200 each day after.
While Liberal premier Stephen McNeil claims his legislation strikes the right balance between safeguarding patient services and preserving the employees right to strike, Satan, as always, lurks in the details.
Which services are essential? Based on similar laws in other jurisdictions, Capital Health CEO Chris Power estimates 70 to 80 per cent of Capital Health nurses will be deemed so essential they can’t strike. Without a realistic option to withdraw their services, what leverage will nurses have?
Perhaps there is a legitimate argument health care workers— like police and fire services providers — are too vital to allow to strike. The former NDP government certainly thought so when it passed emergency legislation back in 2013 to prevent a strike by paramedics. The key difference was that that legislation provided for binding final-offer arbitration to determine an eventual contract.
That’s the flaw in the Liberal law: there’s no mechanism to achieve a collective agreement. The employer —ultimately the government — holds all the cards. Perhaps that’s the government’s real goal.
But even if the law offered a reasonable route to a contract, there is a still larger issue this legislation doesn’t even mention.
Nurses voted, protested, even briefly wildcat-struck, not for higher wages but for what they see as “patient safety.”
When — and how — do we have that discussion?
by Stephen Kimber on March 31, 2014 | 2 Comments
No one seemed to know why. Neither side had made a new offer, each side insisted with equal insistence. Nor had there been any concessions or Saul-like conversions on the path to the picket line anyone knew about.
Despite that, the conciliator had called, so they were heeding the call.
Negotiators for Capital Health and Local 97 of the NSGEU are scheduled to begin bargaining again at 8:45 this morning in what seems like a desultory attempt to head off Thursday’s expected nurses’ strike — or claim they’d made the attempt.
One hopes that somewhere between the silences, the Tim’s and the stale muffins from the previous weekend’s fruitless, non-negotiations, the two sides will finally discuss the obvious sticky point.
The nurses want Capital Health to implement, over time, mandatory nurse-patient ratios… and that’s non-negotiable. Capital Health says they don’t work… talk to the hand.
Who can say who’s right?
Kim Campbell, our-once-and-never-again prime minister may have been correct when she said — excuse the paraphrase — “collective bargaining is no place to discuss serious issues.” But, from the union’s perspective, what’s the alternative?
They claim there are too few nurses, and those nurses are over-worked and over-stressed. That leads, inevitably, to poorer patient care.
Our new government’s faux fix for what ails our health care system — combining relatively efficient regional health boards into a more bureaucratic, likely less efficient central one — doesn’t ask the right questions, let alone offer answers.
Our biggest single health care cost driver is doctors’ fees. Physicians are currently developing strategy for upcoming negotiations with the province over the so-called Master Agreement, and they have already said they want significantly increased compensation.
Although our doctors are among the lowest paid in the country — if you call an average of $250,000 per year low — we also have more doctors per capita than any other province. Do we need that many? Should more of what they do be done by less costly nurses? More of what nurses do be done by LPNs? In community-based collaborative health care centres?
It’s past time for Stephen McNeil to assume leadership here. Instead of bullying nurses for raising important questions, he should start asking some of those questions himself.
by Stephen Kimber on March 24, 2014 | 3 Comments
Let me see if I understand this.
Capital District nurses have the legal right to strike. In February, they voted 90 per cent in favour of striking to back contract demands. But if they actually walk off their jobs, they will effectively — and almost instantly — lose that right. (See the McNeil government’s legislation forcing striking home-care workers to return to their posts even before the ink on their picket signs was dry. McNeil will do the same if nurses down their stethoscopes.)
So what are their options?
The nurses could quit.
Oh… no, they can’t.
After nurses voted overwhelming last week to resign en masse if ordered back to work, the health authority threatened to “take whatever legal action it feels appropriate to counteract such dangerous, unlawful behaviour.”
Though the government feigns hands-off because the two sides are still theoretically negotiating, the premier himself weighed in, insisting resignations not be a “tool in collective bargaining… I find it hard to believe that they would walk away and leave vulnerable Nova Scotians at risk.”
But that, of course, is exactly the issue.
The union wants mandated nurse-patient ratios because they say nurses are overworked and overstressed, a situation that compromises patient safety.
Capital Health — under government-mandated stress to cut costs — insists mandated ratios aren’t a solution.
Both sides trot out contradictory reports from jurisdictions where ratios have been implemented — Australia, California — to buttress their arguments.
While that makes it hard for the rest of us to see the solutions for the statistics, what isn’t in question is there is a problem.
According to one report, Canada’s nurses are nearly twice as likely to be absent due to illness or injury than the average worker. Twenty percent of hospital nurses quit each year, with workload a key factor. U.S. studies have documented an “irrefutable association” between staffing levels and what are delicately referred to as “patient outcomes.”
McNeil may legislate away health care workers’ right to strike, but we shouldn’t let him sweep away this important issue with it.
The premier should appoint a task force — with adequate nurse representation — to examine the overall relationship between staffing and patient health. Its report should be public, completed quickly and its recommendations implemented.
Should students be mass-produced by cheap labour in Chinese factories? Like computers? AIMS apparently thinks so
by Stephen Kimber on March 17, 2014 | No Comments
Why is it that all those stats-stuffed, footnote-filled, soberly sincere public policy backgrounder research reports published by inevitably “independent, non-partisan” yet somehow transparently ideological think tanks and authored by multi-award-winning senior fellows and/or professors emereti are so… well, pedantically, ploddingly predictable?
Take, for example, “The Cost Disease Infects Public Education Across Canada,” the latest tome — complete with cover illustration of a diseased apple — from Halifax’s Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (“independent, non partisan social and economic policy think tank”) and the Manitoba-based Frontier Centre for Public Policy (“independent, non-profit organization that undertakes research in support of economic growth and social outcomes…” and blah blah blah).
The study, written by Frontier senior fellow and professor emeritus Rodney Clifton, draws on the work of yet anther professor emeritus — naturally — to make the simplistic argument that “the cost of consumer products has increased at the rate of the Consumer Price Index while the cost of education and health care have increased at an exponential rate.”
Uh… is the report arguing students should be mass-produced by cheap labour in Chinese factories? Like computers perhaps?
There follows a dizzy-making array of tables and charts designed to demonstrate (yawn) that education costs, including the skyrocketing salaries of educators, have increased while student numbers (“full-time students who are enrolled for two months of a school year are counted as 0.2 FTEs,” etc., etc.) have decreased.
Without pausing to pass go or ask why this might be — we’re living in an increasingly complicated world, perhaps, where educators are required to deal with everything from mental health issues, to cyber-bullying, to individual students with disabilities — or justify its logical leap, the report quickly reaches its inevitable (to it) free-market-man-eat-dog-competition-is-the-answer-no-matter-the-question conclusion:
“Parent-controlled funding (vouchers) would increase competition among schools and improve the education of students.”
As Jamie Stevens, the president of the Nova Scotia School Boards Association, understated in an email to Metro reporter Ruth Davenport last week, the report is a “very simplistic analysis” of a complex reality.
The problem with think tanks like AIMS and the Frontier Institute is that they are less interested in thinking-based policy and more interested in ideology-driven thinking.
Sort of like the Stephen Harper government.
by Stephen Kimber on March 10, 2014 | No Comments
Forget for the moment whether last week’s Emera executive bonuses come out of your right pocket or your left.
And don’t probe too deeply into whether the supposed wall between the cash shoveled into the bank accounts of Emera executives for the work they do for our own Nova Scotia Power electricity utility and the cash scooped into their pockets for the very different work they do for the larger entity called Emera is made of sand… or gossamer.
Let us consider just dollars and percentages.
Last week, Emera — the parent company of Nova Scotia Power, the once-over-lightly regulated, essentially-a-monopoly utility — announced its annual orgy of buck passing to its top executives.
An Emera board committee — charged with deciding how much more to reward Emera’s bosses in 2013 for doing what they were already being paid very well to do in 2012— decided CEO Chris Huskilson merited 54 per cent more last year, which is to say his paltry $3.1 million packet of salary, bonuses, options, pensions and perks in 2012 mushroomed into $4.7 million in 2013… which is to say he made more than $90,000 a week… which is to say he took home more than twice Nova Scotia’s annual average industrial wage… every week.
How many Emera executives does it take to screw in a light bulb?
Well, Rob Bennett, Emera’s COO, also sashayed out the door with $1.4 million, 23 per cent more than the year before, and Nancy Tower, vice president of business development, waltzed off with $1.2 million, 43 per cent more.
The committee explained it had carefully calculated the bloated executive compensation provided to those in similar companies, and came to the conclusion Emera’s executive pay was not quite bloated enough.
Added company spokesperson Sasha Irving: “Based on company growth and strong results under [Huskilson’s] leadership, the committee made the decision to increase his compensation to be reflective of that.”
Were executives the only one who contributed to that growth and strong results?
Did Huskilson’s secretary’s salary increase by 54 per cent?
How about Nova Scotia Power’s linemen and plant workers for … oh, right, they’re jobs are being contracted out in order to contribute to Emera’s good results, in order to generate Emera’s executive bonuses …