Houston shunts problem issues beyond the next election. Let Future Tim worry about them

A white man with short grey hair and wearing a blue suit with a purple tie.
Premier Tim Houston speaks with reporters on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023.

First, the good news. “The province will conduct a comprehensive review of the policing structure in Nova Scotia and potentially recommend changes for how policing services are delivered,” the Houston government announced late last month.

The bad news? Wait for it.

First, a little history.

In December 2020, then-Liberal Justice Minister Mark Furey told reporters he had  “initiated talks within his department about provincial policing service models” after a series of “troubling incidents” involving cops and public safety.

Ten months later, after a change in government, new Tory Justice Minister Brad Johns put that work on hold. He suggested it would be “premature for the government to make broad decisions about service delivery until after the mass casualty commission… completes its work.”

It was clearly not too premature, however, for Johns to express himself comfortable with the status quo. “I want the record to be straight,” he told reporters. “I’m very comfortable with the level of policing in this province at all levels right now.”

Five months after that, when the commission delivered its final report, it included scathing evidence about the sorry state of policing in Nova Scotia. The commissioners issued a clarion call for governments at all levels to figure out a better future.

“Every option is on the table,” Premier Tim Houston told reporters that same day. “That’s why we have to do a fulsome review…”

Slow forward yet another six months to September 29, 2023.

To recap, it’s been nearly four years and two governments since Furey’s initial announcement, and the Houston government was finally ready to announce its own “comprehensive review” of policing.

Except… not quite.

What the government actually announced was that it had issued “a request for proposals for an external consultant to conduct the comprehensive, technical review of policing.”

The press release offered no information on a deadline for bids to do that work. Or when the successful consultant would be announced. Or when that consultant would complete the required work. Or whether the findings would be made public.

The government did announce the names of the review’s chair and co-chair, then added that “other police review advisory committee members will be announced at a later date.”

“Later date” unspecified.

Date for the completion of the review itself: “Expected to be completed by 2025.”

Don’t expect to be able to read it then, of course, even if it is completed, which it probably won’t be.

My prediction is that even if this comprehensive review is indeed wrapped and ready by 2025, it will disappear into the usual behind-closed-doors government-consideration neverland until after the July 2025 provincial general election is safely in the history books and the Tories are safely returned to office.

So, it will be a problem (the premier hopes) for Future Tim…

Here’s another piece of seeming good news… that’s really not-so-good news.

On September 28, the Houston government issued official Terms of Reference (TOR in government speak) for an internal working group’s “internal review of Nova Scotia’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy (FOIPOP) Legislation Framework.”

Where to begin with this one?

Well, consider that the legislation was passed 30 years ago, and never substantively updated.

A few memorable moments in the years since.

In 2013, then-Liberal premier Stephen McNeil made an in-writing election campaign pledge to “expand the powers and mandate of the [Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner], particularly through granting her order-making power.” Once elected, he reneged. Fingers crossed. Didn’t mean it.

In 2021, then-opposition leader Tim Houston promised similar reforms before becoming premier himself and deciding government transparency was no longer a priority, or in his government’s future interest.

Until now.

“It is important that we update the legislation so that it continues to provide public access to important information held by the government,” declared Justice Minister Johns in announcing the review.

It is worth noting that various annual reports by various information and privacy commissioners over the years have fully documented the many and various shortcomings of the current legislation and proposed specific solutions.

Nonetheless, the working group has been tasked with completing its own “comprehensive review,” after, of course, it completes its “work plan,” “engagement plan” and provides “regular progress updates to the ministers and deputy ministers of justice and Service Nova Scotia…”

Can we sense where this is heading? Off the rails?

Although the working group is to “prepare a package of legislative options and recommendations for submission to the minister of justice to be tabled in the House of Assembly…” the terms of reference don’t specify a deadline for any of this to be accomplished.

Will it end up next to the policing review reportin that same we-will-study-this fantasy land until after the next election?

Another problem for Future Tim.

Are we sensing a pattern here? And perhaps a plan?

Let’s look at one more example, this one from earlier in September:

The province has awarded a contract to consulting firm 21 FSP to do a broad economic impact study on the ferry service between Nova Scotia and Maine.

You may remember that the Tories, in opposition, were highly critical of the sweetheart deal the previous government had signed with Bay Ferries, one that has cost us in the $17-plus-plus-million-a-year range whether the ferry sailed or not. Whether there were passengers or not.

Since the Tories have been in government, however, they have walked a razor-fine line of confusion sowing, continuing to dole out the cash while bad-mouthing the operator while trying not to anger voters in southwestern Nova Scotia who still see the ferry as their economic lifeline.

This brings us to the current study. Public Works Minister Kim Masland first promised it last October after the latest not-as-good-as-hoped ferry season was history and after the province had already renewed the company’s lease on the ferry for yet another year.

In July — nine months later — the province called for bids to conduct its faux economic impact study. Perhaps not surprisingly, 16 different firms submitted proposals to do the work.

Perhaps more surprisingly, as the CBC’s Michael Gorman reported, the firm selected for the $180,00 contract didn’t exist until it bid for the work:

21FSP is a new firm, so new that it has no discernible web presence. It registered with the province’s registry of joint stock companies on July 28. Its principals are Tom McGuire and Ron L’Esperance, the founders of consulting firm Group ATN [an offshoot of the m5 Group of Companies, which describes itself as “the largest integrated communications organization in Atlantic Canada]. L’Esperance is also a former deputy minister with the provincial government.

According to the government’s press release, 21FSP’s final report is “expected in the fall of 2024.” The release does not say how soon — if ever — it will be made public. But we can depend on it to be considered by the government for as long as possible.

At least until after the next provincial election.

More future problems for Future Tim?


A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner

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