Can we finally hope to hope?

We have a new provincial government that at least seems to be making the right progressive noises. COVID-19 vaccines are headed our way. And spring is in the air…

Premier Iain Rankin at the COVID-19 briefing, March 2, 2021.
Photo: Communications Nova Scotia

The first hint that the change of Nova Scotia government might be more than a simple shuffling of shop-worn deck chairs did not come from the new government. It landed on the day before Iain Rankin was even sworn in as premier.

On Feb. 22, Bay Ferries Ltd. issued a “media advisory,” publicly releasing information it and the Stephen McNeil government had fought for five years — inside the legislature, with the province’s access to information commissioner and, ultimately, in the courts — to keep secret.

In light of the Feb. 16, 2021, decision of the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia, Bay Ferries is disclosing the amount of the management fee contained in its ferry operation agreements with the Province of Nova Scotia.

Even after the court’s decision and Bay Ferries announcement, Stephen McNeil — in one of his last acts as premier — had attacked the judge’s ruling. McNeil called the requirement to make public what we now know was the annual $1.17-million-plus-incentives management fee (which we pay Bay Ferries to operate a ferry that hasn’t operated for three years), an “attack on proprietary information in the private sector.” Although he allowed that appealing the court ruling was now “not a decision for us to make,” McNeil signalled in his starkest, stay-the-blazes way possible which course he wanted his successor to chart.

Bay Ferries’ announcement pre-empted Rankin’s need to make that call.

Did Bay Ferries jump, or was it nudged? The company’s CEO, Mark MacDonald, said the premier’s office was not involved in its decision, by which one assumes he meant Stephen McNeil’s office. But, given the lockstep history in which McNeil and the company had fought to keep the information secret, my guess is that the incoming premier quietly made it clear to MacDonald he no longer had a willing private dancer. Making the best of the mess it was in, Bay Ferries then opted to curry favour with the new administration by pre-emptively taking one for the new team.

Beyond that, however, the early signs the new government intends to present a different face than Stephen McNeil’s combative one have been promising.

Renaming government departments and agencies — environment and climate change, infrastructure and housing, transportation and active transit, the office of equity and anti-racism — not to mention reimagining the former department of business as the department of inclusive economic growth, may all ultimately be judged progressive window-dressing but the dressing itself sure looks good on the new premier.

During his first two weeks on the job, some of Rankin’s PR spin did land on actual money-where-his-mouth-is spending. The day after he took office, the environment department announced $19 million in new cash to encourage car buyers to choose electric vehicles and promote greater energy efficiency. Then, late last week, the government anted up $3 million to goose an existing process of clearing land titles in historic African Nova Scotian communities. Before 2017, residents had had to go to court to fight for title to land bequeathed to them by their ancestors.  Rankin himself rightly described the problem — residents without that legal title often couldn’t get mortgages, loans or even sell their property— as a legacy of the province’s long sorry history of systemic racism.

There were other less tangible but no less important signals of change.

In his first few days in office, for example, Rankin met with opposition party leaders. After a year — maybe seven? — of McNeil freezing out and minimizing the role and importance of the opposition parties, Rankin was at least acknowledging they too had a place at his legislative table.

And Rankin’s new minister of finance, Labi Kousoulos, made clear he isn’t planning cuts to the public service, which had been under constant threat during the last seven years of anti-public sector McNeil governance.

Premier Ian Rankin (l) and Dr. Robert Strang at the Feb. 24 COVID briefing. Photo: Communications Nova Scotia

None of this is to suggest there haven’t been early stumbles too. Last Monday, the province was supposed to begin accepting bookings for COVID vaccinations for those 80 and over, but its online booking system immediately crashed, its phone lines jammed. By the time the system became operational again later that day, all the available appointments had been taken.

Then, on Tuesday, during a COVID-19 briefing, Dr. Robert Strang, the province’s chief medical officer, said he hadn’t yet decided whether to advise the premier to accept a shipment of suddenly available 13,000 doses of AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine. It wasn’t recommended for people over 65, Strang said, suggesting those doses might not fit with the province’s own rollout plan. In a nationally televised interview with CTV’s Evan Solomon later that day, the premier tried to defend Strang’s “not-distracting-from-the-plan” line. It didn’t go well. Robert Fife, the Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau chief, later described the premier’s response as “political stupidity.”

By the next afternoon, however, Rankin had issued a follow-up statement, announcing he had “directed” Strang to figure out a way to get those AstraZeneca doses into 13,000 Nova Scotia arms as quickly as possible. The use of the word directed was intriguing. It suggested both that the bromance between Strang and the man in the premier’s chair was now history and also that Rankin was now the man in charge.

The larger question is what happens next. On Tuesday, the legislature will meet for the first time in a year. There will be a throne speech, a budget, committee hearings, question periods, the cut and thrust of legislative debate and the mettle test of public accountability.

It is too early to know how that will turn out. But it is almost spring and vaccines are in the air. I hope to hope.

A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner

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