Stephen Kimber

The missing essentials in McNeil’s essential services legislation

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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?

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Copyright 2014 Stephen Kimber

If collective bargaining isn’t the right time to discuss larger issues, what is, Stephen McNeil?

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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.

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Copyright 2014 Stephen Kimber

Should our right to adequate care disappear with nurses’ right to strike?

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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.

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Copyright 2014 Stephen Kimber

Should students be mass-produced by cheap labour in Chinese factories? Like computers? AIMS apparently thinks so

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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.”

Huh?

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.

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Copyright 2014 Stephen Kimber

Nova Scotia’s something-for-everyone holiday a cowardly cop-out

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It began with a January phone call from a school principal, inviting Wanda and Joe Robson to travel from their home in Cape Breton to metro to attend a Feb. 17 unveiling of a portrait honouring Wanda’s sister, Viola Desmond.

Desmond — who was convicted for sitting in the whites-only section of a New Glasgow movie theatre in 1946, nine years before Rosa Park’s refusal to sit in the blacks-only section of a Montgomery, Alabama, bus launched the American civil rights movement — is one of Canada’s still-too-little-celebrated heroes.

Her now 87-year-old sister Wanda is among many who’ve campaigned to have a new February provincial holiday designated “Viola Desmond Day — A Day To Honour All Those Who Have Fought for Social Justice in Nova Scotia.” The Cape Breton Regional Municipality and town councils in New Glasgow and Shelburne have voiced their support .

No one told Wanda there was any connection between the portrait unveiling and plans to announce the holiday, not even when Heritage Minister Tony Ince called to tell Wanda how much he’d like to see her at the unveiling.

Wanda and Joe couldn’t go, They only found out what had happened — and then only part of it — last Monday when Wanda got a congratulatory call from Wendy Bergfeldt, the host of Sydney’s CBC radio afternoon show. Ince and Labour Minister Kelly Regan had announced the 2015 holiday would be named Viola Desmond Day. Wanda said she was “thrilled.”

“I said I was pleased,” Wanda says now. “I had to be pleased.”

But there was a catch. Only the first holiday will honour Desmond. “Each year,” Kelly told reporters, “we'll celebrate a different contribution to Nova Scotia's storied past and diverse culture.”

When she learned the full truth. Wanda felt “blindsided. I’m not happy.”

Desmond

For starters, she believes — as do many — that a holiday in the middle of Black History Month should logically honour someone of African descent. And that the holiday’s name should more broadly recognize those who’ve “fought for social justice.”The new, rotating, something-for-everyone holiday will do neither.

It’s too bad. The new provincial government had the opportunity to at least try to be a shadow as courageous as Viola Desmond. It failed.

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Copyright 2014 Stephen Kimber

Stephen McNeil, freedom of information and the perks of patronage power

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Back in late September 2013, in the warm afterglow of the celebration of yet another Right to Know Week in Canada and the publication of yet another report decrying the creaking weaknesses in Nova Scotia’s 35-year-old freedom of information legislation, the province's Freedom of Information Review Officer Dulcie McCallum expressed guarded optimism.

Both Liberal leader Stephen McNeil and Tory leader Jamie Baillie — campaigning, it should be noted, in a provincial election at the time — had “unequivocally” agreed to the report’s three specific recommendations to modernize the act. Better, the leaders of all three parties had responded “positively” to a letter from McCallum — a former British Columbia ombudsman who’d taken on the Nova Scotia job in 2007 — calling for yet another critical legislative reset: “To ensure true independence from government, make the review officer an officer of the legislature, like the auditor general and ombudsman.”

Those positive vibes from the political leaders, McCallum wrote at the time, “tells me that there is an overall appreciation of the need to reform our access legislation.”

Four months and one government later, Stephen McNeil publicly demonstrated his “unequivocal” support for more open, responsive and accountable government: he fired Dulcie McCallum.

On January 17, McNeil’s new government — having given her no reason to suspect it would not reappoint her — informed McCallum it was saying, thank you for your “excellent service,” here’s your two weeks notice, goodbye.

The government, she was told, wanted to appoint its own candidate for the position.

Uh… wasn’t that the problem — that the government of the day, which will almost inevitably find itself in the cross-hairs of any review officer worthy of the name, gets to hire and fire the person — that McCallum’s legislative appointment proposal was designed to fix? And didn’t Stephen McNeil respond “positively” to the idea?

Or was that Campaigning Stephen vs governing Stephen?

Will the government now follow its own rapidly evolving tradition and appointment a party stalwart — perhaps one with a “rejigged” resumé — to the job?

Or will McNeil seize the opportunity, declare it had been... ahem... his intention all along to amend the legislation and then turn the appointment of a the next Review Officer over to the legislature?

Hold your breath… but not too long.

 
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Copyright 2014 Stephen Kimber

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