One of the interesting early smoke signals from the new Liberal government is the one they aren’t sending — that the sky is falling. The Liberals did not, as the previous NDP government did, order up an immediate full-blown independent report on the state of the province’s finances, a report whose conclusions changed the course of the Dexter government’s first term and, arguably, put paid to its hopes of a second.
Could it be that those godless, investment-scaring tax-and-spend socialists managed to put the previous Tory government’s mismanaged fiscal house in order in their four years, allowing the Liberals to seamlessly begin governing as if the hobnailed boots of the apocalypse were not already upon our necks?
Or are we just waiting for the other, reality shoe to drop?
Time will tell.
Which is probably the safest thing to be said at this point about Stephen McNeil’s new brooms.
They are governing with a certain confidence-inducing confidence: fleshing out their promised pubic inquiry into the Nova Scotia Home for Coloured Children, making sure $60 million in federal social housing funds get spent wisely, launching a full-scale review of MLA compensation, pledging a happy-making winter holiday and telling other jurisdictions to keep their fracking waste to themselves, thank you very much.
At the same time, they have shown how easy it is to slide comfortably into governing’s perks. They swiftly shredded their opposition argument to remove political control from funding decisions at the government’s business slush fund. Not to worry, they say, they’ll be more transparent about it. That’s… comforting.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the government’s first order of business when the legislature opened last week was a bill aimed at “breaking” Nova Scotia Power’s monopoly on the electricity grid, allowing independent power generators to sell directly to customers.
Which sounds good and was the centerpiece of the Liberals’ energy-focused winning election platform. But it came with the implicit promise of lower power rates, which even the government now admits won’t happen as a result.
At best, the move will be a no-gain-no-loss symbolic gesture; at worst, removing big customers from the NSP grid will drive up costs for the rest of us.
Time will tell. For us. And for the eventual fate of Stephen McNeil's new government.
The federal justice department’s 19-page internal review into its role in the the Fenwick MacIntosh extradition process — Aug. 15, 1997 (“Nova Scotia Public Prosecution Service contacts the International Assistance Group to discuss potential extradition request”) to July 14, 2006 (“Canada formally requests extradition”) — has no named author.
The review itself — which followed the Supreme Court’s recent ruling tossing 17 child sex abuse convictions against MacIntosh, largely because of delays in bringing the case to court — also does not name anyone involved in what Justice Minister Peter MacKay Friday acknowledged was a “depressing display of bureaucratic bungling.”
Instead, they are simply referred to as “justice officials…” “prosecutors…” “the RCMP liaison officer in India…” “the new counsel…”
Similarly, the details of why what happened happened are obscured under suffocating layers of report-speak. There was “serious human error” and an “absence of institutional systems.”
While lamentably lacking in substance, the review’s saving grace was that it acknowledged the department's failures. “The victims and all Canadians had a right to expect better from federal public officials.”
Justice Minister Peter MacKay — who was not justice minister when any of this happened — was equally forthright. “I want to apologize and express my sincere regrets for the mistakes made by federal employees who played a role in this tragic case and the institutional failures that contributed to this travesty of justice.”
Nothing more to see here, folks. End of story. No need for a public inquiry. Move along.
Why should we trust those who made such a hash of all of this then to tell us it’s all fixed now?
Who were those nameless-but-apparently-not-blameless federal employees and what, if anything, has happened to their careers as a result? More importantly, why did they screw up? Were they overworked? Under-trained? Lazy?
We need a public inquiry that will hear from those bureaucrats — and their bosses — under oath. About what they didn’t do. And why what happened can’t happen again.
We also need to hear from MacIntosh himself — again under oath. Did he, as some media outlets claim, return to Canada from India on several occasions while the Canadian government was supposedly trying to extradite him. If so, how did that happen? (The internal review, being an internal review, finds no documents to support the media suggestion and so investigates no further.)
So thank you, nameless reviewer, for acknowledging fault, and thank you, Peter MacKay, for apologizing for something no one can blame on you.
But it isn't enough.
As one of the complainants said after the review’s release: “An apology from the federal government is fine and this review is fine, but at the end of the day nothing has changed and MacIntosh is still a free man.”
Surely, we can do better than that.
Stephen McNeil doesn’t even have the key to the executive washroom — premier’s desk, top left-hand drawer — and his administration-in-eager-anticipation is already being sideswiped by economic events over which it has little control and less influence.
Just two days after his Liberals were swept into office on an electoral toss-those-rascals-out-and-let’s-see-what-these-rascals-will-do roll of the dice, Blackberry, the former tech giant, announced it was closing its Halifax office and laying off 350 workers.
That’s no surprise to anyone who has glanced at a newspaper in the last two years. And there is nothing — no grant, incentive, free toaster — the new government can offer to change its mind. Even if it wanted to.
That said, those 350 skilled, soon-to-be-job-searching workers are now McNeil’s responsibility.
He will face the same urgent but unpalatable short-term choices as his predecessors: suck up to footloose multinationals with the usual fruit basket of government incentives, or watch those workers take their skills, salaries, taxes and futures elsewhere.
There are longer term choices too, of course, but they are longer term.
See “toss-those-rascals-out” above.
To complicate McNeil’s final, before-the-real-reckoning days, Nova Scotia Power Inc. announced Thursday it was considering outsourcing what could amount to 250 skilled union jobs as part of a search for $27.5 million in cost savings ordered in last year’s power rate settlement — a deal that will still see power rates increase by three per cent this January.
The union says the move could siphon up to $14 million a year in wages and benefits out of the provincial economy.
While everyone was quick to insist NSP’s we’re-contemplating announcement had nada to do with McNeil’s election, it was lost on no one that McNeil’s platform — such as it was — centred on a promise to rein in power rates by making NSP shareholders swallow everything from the $46 million costs of Efficiency Nova Scotia to its traditionally guaranteed rate of return.
Without saying so, NSP — it of the salty fog and your-power-will-be-restored-someday — is making it clear that if pushed to shove by the new government, it will shove workers and the economy that depends on them under the shareholder bus.
Welcome to your new office, Mr. Premier. And good luck.
On June 23, 2012, 50 longtime NDP activists put the issue starkly in a j’accuse letter to Premier Darrell Dexter.
“If the NDP now actually stands for anything fundamentally different, for any change from previous governments,” they wrote, more in angst than anger, “it is hard to see what it is. And if the NDP is not a party of change… why should those who want change support it?”
They were responding, in part, to Dexter’s pledge to shave two points off the HST as soon as the province’s books were balanced. That, they claimed, would hobble chances of pursuing the party’s broader social goals.
“One can only imagine what the NDP, when in opposition, would have said about the priorities of a provincial budget, which gave… $304 million to the Irvings, cut the tax rate for large corporations (and) forced spending cuts on health care, and primary, secondary and post-secondary education.”
But now that decision day looms and polls show Stephen McNeil’s Liberals leading, the party’s progressive true believers must make a choice.
Should they sit this one out, let the party lose power and hope more progressive elements emerge — and that those progressive elements can retake power? Or should they hold their noses, dance with the one that brought them, and hope a rising economy will float their more progressive boats.
Dexter’s supporters counter — rightly — the NDP inherited a Tory/Liberal financial mess and assumed power just as the global economic meltdown went into full melt. The NDP not only balanced the budget, providing more stable funding for social spending down the road, but its modest successes — collaborative health care centres, capping the price of generic drugs, increasing children’s dental coverage, increasing minimum wages, capping cell phone cancellation fees — wouldn’t have happened under Liberals or Tories.
“Let’s get real here,” says Ray Larkin, another long-time party activist who supports the government. “The NDP may not have accomplished all we might have wanted it to do, but it has made huge progress on other issues… This is not a time to abandon ship or change course.”
One of those who did sign the letter — and asked not to be identified because he still has party connections — says he will vote NDP “but for not many good reasons. I think the potential is still there in the history and the principles of the NDP to allow for the possibility of more change and this is much more than I expect from the Liberals.”
Will other progressives ultimately come around?
The only certainty is that if enough of them don’t, the party won’t return to power. And would that really be a better outcome?
Mr. Baillie, I must, respectfully, disagree.
Last week, on the eve the possible election call that preceded the eve of the likely election call which was, thankfully, finally followed by the actual election call, Conservative leader Jamie Baillie declared that, if elected, he would introduce legislation to set fixed provincial election dates.
Once derided as a sign of the “Americanization” of our politics, fixed election laws — er, make that fixed date election laws — are the law of the land in Ottawa and every province and territory except our own.
Let us leave aside, for the moment, the undoubted public policy wisdom of pinning the tail on an election day.
Let us also leave aside the unlikeliness that Baillie, third in public opinion polls and holding, will form a government any time soon — and the even more likely unlikeliness that any party will form a majority after the next polling day, making the fixing of a next election day a temporarily-at-least parliamentary moot point…
Let us consider instead the journalistic implications of such a sea change in the way we do our political business.
What would political reporters speculate about? Editorialists wax wise about? The chattering classes chatter about?
Think about the last four years. Save for its first year in office when we were all too busy fretting about the implications of electing our first ever socialist government — before we realized they were really John-Hamm conservative progressives in orange drag — the non-story that has gotten the most ink inevitably is election speculation.
Does the premier’s photo-op announcement of a new bed in a senior’s home in Necum Tuech signal the start of the next campaign? Has the latest poor poll result put paid to a certain election call next week? Will the NDP now off-with-Dexter’s head in hopes a new leader can change their fortunes? Is the premier’s sudden weight loss a sign an election is imminent?
Without an election to speculate on, what would journalists do on all those news-less days in the depths of summer?
Perhaps we would be forced to focus instead on the heavier lifting of reporting on public policy…
Hmmm, Mr. Baillie. Perhaps you are on to something here.
Let the campaign begin.
Now that the government has legislatively punted the possibility of a paramedics strike into the hands of a pick-one arbitrator — who will have to choose between dueling union and management last-best offers for wages and working conditions over the next three to five years — it’s time to ask ourselves a question.
What’s wrong with this picture?
Depending on who you believe — the government, the Liberal opposition, or the union respectively — Nova Scotia lost 26, 40 or 90 of its 750 paramedics in the past year or so to greener pastures, higher wages and better working conditions in other parts of Canada. Experienced paramedics in Alberta can earn $20–30,000 more a year than in Nova Scotia.
Even Health Minister David Wilson — a former paramedic whose government legislated the end to this strike-before-it-was-a- strike — acknowledges retaining paramedics can be “a real challenge.”
Worse, many of those leaving are those most in demand — highly-trained advanced care paramedics who can administer the kind of life-saving medications at emergencies that mean the difference between… well, life and death.
Wages aren’t the only negotiating glue pot. Union leader Terry Chapman claims paramedics who call in sick aren’t replaced on their shifts, adding stress to already overworked first responders. And there is currently no easy transition for older paramedics from the pressures of the ambulance to useful work in collaborative care units or emergency rooms.
“Morale,” Chapman says, “is at an all-time low.”
The union’s last contract expired in March 2011. Since then, paramedics have soundly rejected three offers, including two recommended by their union leadership. They rejected the most recent deal — which included a government-mandated defined-benefit pension sweetener — by an overwhelming 73 per cent.
The two sides are still far apart. Management’s last offer on the table called for an 11.1 per cent wage increase spread over nearly five years. The union’s final demand was a 15 per cent raise over three years.
Since the arbitrator must choose only one proposal, both sides must frantically sharpen their pencils over the next few weeks.
The only certainty seems to be that whatever decision the arbitrator makes will not drain the poison from this bargaining well.
That should concern us all.keep looking »