Will the new McNeil be like the old one? Let’s hope not

If there is just one trait I will hope for in a new Liberal leader — a person who will automatically become our premier without benefit of even any public laying on of electoral hands — it is simply be that she or he not be as unreflectively, reflexively anti-union as the incumbent.

Stephen McNeil at July 9 briefing. (Communications Nova Scotia)

If there is just one trait I will hope for in a new Liberal leader — a person who will automatically become our premier without benefit of even any public laying on of electoral hands — it is simply be that she or he not be as unreflectively, reflexively anti-union as the incumbent.

From the beginning of his time in power, Stephen McNeil, the small-minded small business owner from small-town Nova Scotia, has identified public sector unions as his mortal enemy, not to be engaged with but simply subjugated to his implacable will.

In part, of course, that was always baked into McNeil’s own neoliberal agenda, his core belief that the answer to every political, economic and social question must be a balanced budget and that public sector workers are inevitably an impediment to achieving his nirvana.

Much of his anti-union agenda — including legislating rather than negotiating contracts for thousands of everyday government employees — will probably not survive ongoing constitutional court challenges.

But the question remains: will the attitude the premier brought to labour relations survive his premiership?

The answer is important always, but especially in these continuing pandemic times. Consider only two examples from last week.

On Thursday, following the regular cabinet meeting, reporters asked McNeil about NSGEU President Jason MacLean’s decision not to participate in a government review of the deaths at Northwood because his union would not be allowed to make its submission public.

First, a little background.

Early on in the pandemic — at a time when there were still just three COVID-related deaths in Nova Scotia, but 27 of the 29 who had tested positive were in long-term care homes — the NSGEU raised red flags. They were concerned not only about what their members described as “horrible” infection control and staff protection measures inside Northwood but also about the McNeil government’s history of cost-cutting/book-balancing decisions that had, in effect, created systemic staffing shortages in provincial nursing homes.

Rather than respond to the substance of those complaints, McNeil attacked the union, accusing it of trying to negotiate a new contract in the middle of a crisis. “This is not, quite frankly, the time for anyone to begin to negotiate… There’ll be lots of times for debate, and unions and others will have their opportunity to criticize or question what we have done or what has been done in the past.”

But providing an opportunity for an informed public debate — including criticism of his government’s policies — was never part of the premier’s agenda.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the NSGEU was among the first to call for a full, transparent public inquiry into what ultimately became 53 deaths at Northwood.

Equally unsurprising, McNeil rejected that, opting instead for a secretive expert review under something called the Quality-improvement Information Protection Act. That process not only allows the government to keep the final report in its vault, publishing only its disconnected recommendations, but also gags those who want to testify before the review from even speaking publicly about their testimony.

McNeil had to know that. So how did he respond to a reporter’s question lastv week about MacLean’s decision not to appear before the panel because, he said, the process wouldn’t allow him to release his submission publicly?

McNeil’s response to reporters:

No one ever said he couldn’t [release his submission]. Nothing is stopping Mr. MacLean from telling his story. And you should research that before you print it as fact because it’s not fact.

Uh…

Within the hour, MacLean had released his own statement, detailing all the steps he and the union’s lawyers had taken to confirm their concern. It’s worth a read.

Here are the facts.

Mr. MacLean was scheduled to appear before the review committee on July 22.

That day NSGEU asked our legal counsel to contact counsel from the Department of Justice and ask directly if the terms of the Quality-improvement Information Protection Act would restrict our ability to publicize any information we provided to the Review Committee. Our lawyer received the following in response:

“First I should say that the review is happening at arms-length from government, and beyond striking the Terms of Reference, the Department of Health and its solicitors don’t advise the review or speak for it. So I can give you our understanding, but your client should also address any concerns directly with the review and seek clarification there.

That said, the review falls under the Quality-Improvement Information Protection Act (QIIPA), which is designed to implement a high-degree of confidentiality. The recommendations that come from the review would be disclosable to the public, but any report or supporting evidence would not, and would not be accessible under FOIPOP. ‘Information’ as defined in QIIPA includes information communicated to the review in any form, including oral discussions. Furthermore, ‘information’ as defined in QIIPA is not compellable as evidence in a court proceeding. There are some exceptions in QIIPA, though none would seem to apply here.”

Later that day the NSGEU received a response from the Review Committee directly. The following response was from Jennifer Mendoza, a consultant working for the Committee:

“Hi Jason;

Thanks for agreeing to meet this afternoon.

In terms of guidelines the meeting is part of the consultation process related to the Quality Improvement Review related to the outbreak of COVID-19 at the Northwood Long Term Care Facility, Halifax campus. As part of this review, the Committee is interviewing individuals and parties that, in the opinion of the Committee, have relevant information to the review. Information provided during interviews will be used to assist the reviewers in determining what factors contributed to the outbreak and spread of COVID-19 within the facility.

Any “quality improvement information” is protected from disclosure under the Quality-improvement Information Protection Act. The Reviewers will make recommendations to the Minister of Health and Wellness for the purposes of planning and managing the health system and conducting Province-wide quality-improvement activities related to the management of COVID-19 in long-term care facilities. The Minister may disclose aggregated de-identified information and any resulting health services system recommendations that do not include personal health information or personal information.

For more information, please see the terms of reference.

Please let us know if you have any further questions.

Jennifer”

That afternoon Mr. MacLean did appear before the Review Committee and again sought clarification on the rules of confidentiality. The committee confirmed the terms as described by the Department of Justice and Ms. Mendoza.

Mr. MacLean told the Review Committee he could not continue with the interview as it is the position of the NSGEU that all information should be made public. The NSGEU went on to publicly release its own report called Neglecting Northwood. 

The union’s 24-page report — which is augmented by 840 pages of documents and emails the union obtained in response to an access to information request — details key government decisions it claims put staff and residents at risk:

  1. Years of government cuts to long term care facilities without understanding the risks this created for the health and safety who live and work there;
  2. Dismissing infection control concerns raised by Northwood and refusing to fund proposals that would have eliminated the practice of double and triple bunking;
  3. Delaying the use of Personal Protection Equipment, such as masks, in Northwood even though British Columbia implemented the safety practices in their long-term care facilities three weeks earlier; and
  4. Not responding quickly enough once the first case of COVID was identified in the facility.

Those claims — which, in the journalism parlance of the day, have not been tested in court — could have been tested in the structured public back-and-forth a public inquiry allows.

Instead, that sort of accountability becomes yet another victim of this premier’s hatred of unions.

Example number two.

On Thursday, six union leaders representing Nova Scotia teachers and staff held a press conference to highlight their concerns about the government’s plan to re-open schools next month.

They’re worried about poor ventilation in schools, the physical inability to physically distance in classrooms and the lack of clear guidance for teachers, staff and parents.

Reading between the lines of what they said, it seems clear the government did consult at some point with some of the unions before announcing its belated here-it-is reopening plan in late July, but that it never really considered them part of the solution, or even a partner in coming up with solutions.

Paul Wozney

Nova Scotia Teachers’ Union President Paul Wozney, for example, told reporters he had held talks with provincial officials, and the original plan was to reopen grades P-9 with reduced class sizes and have high school students attend classes on a rotating basis. The union supported that scheme.

Instead, the government unilaterally changed the plan.

“We have no idea what the epidemiology or the research is that justifies the shift to ‘everybody back with no distancing,’” he says of the current scheme that will see a full return to full classes in September. “We’ve asked those questions; we’ve received no answers. It’s simply not good enough.”

There is, of course no easy or single right way to re-open our schools. The decision is fraught with all sorts of considerations, not only about health and safety but also about re-starting the economy and getting our world back to something resembling normal.

That’s why it’s essential for the government to work collaboratively with those most affected — not just unions but also parents — to make sure there is the maximum social buy-in to both process and results.

Stephen McNeil didn’t do that. He isn’t capable of getting past his own animus to do that.

What about his successor? For our sake — and our province’s — we owe it to ourselves to ask those who want to become the next Liberal leader and next premier of Nova Scotia how they will work with the public servants who work for us to improve life for all of us.

A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner

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