Houston’s new ministers, all dressed up with nothing much to say.

A empty chamber with blue chairs, desks with microphones, and two paintings hanging next to a big chair
Nova Scotia House of Assembly

Let’s begin with an instant replay of Tim Bousquet’s revealing Q&As with Tim Houston’s three freshly minted cabinet ministers last week.

Well, not yet. First, a little background.

On Thursday, September 14, Premier Houston announced what he called “historic changes” to his cabinet, including the appointment of newly elected Preston MLA Twila Grosse as the first-ever Black female minister for African Nova Scotian Affairs and the Public Service Commission. 

She replaces Pat Dunn, the veteran Tory MLA, who’d been the white minister for African Nova Scotian Affairs, as well as the minister of communities, culture, tourism and heritage, Since he is, conveniently, not reoffering, his jobs had to be reassigned.

At the same time, Houston nominated current key cabinet minister Karla MacFarlane to become the first-ever female Speaker of the House of Assembly when it resumes on October 12. (In the process of making that history, the premier also managed to shunt aside the current speaker, Keith Bain, with whom he had previously clashed and whom he had attempted, unsuccessfully, to fire.)

Less historic but no less significant for a government in the middle of its first mandate, he replaced Fisheries Minister Steve Craig, who also announced he won’t run in the next election, and promoted Kent Smith, a first-term MLA from Eastern Shore to that position. 

Houston also plopped MacFarlane’s former primary cabinet duties — minister of the not insignificant community services portfolio — in the lap of another freshman MLA, former Port Hawkesbury town councillor Trevor Boudreau.

One other switch — perhaps a sign of the weakness of the Tory backbench, perhaps an indication of the government’s future commitment to communities, culture, tourism and whatnot — Houston larded that agglomerated cabinet portfolio onto Allan MacMaster’s already over-filled plate. Before Thursday, MacMaster had been the deputy premier, the minister of finance and treasury board, the minister of labour relations and of Gaelic affairs. Now he was also all those other ministers of… 

Back to Thursday’s announcements, after which the new ministers were “trotted in front of reporters and said … well, nothing beyond platitudes,” as Tim put it, adding, fairly enough: “To be fair, the three haven’t yet even met their staff, but I think it’s reasonable to ask what their priorities will be, so I did.

Let’s start with the high lowlights of their moments in the spotlight and then ask what it all means.

Twila Grosse

Bousquet: … You have been involved significantly in the African Nova Scotian community and various organizations. Do you have a sort of set of issues that you feel need to be addressed or is there some sort of first steps that you want to take given that you still have the limitations of the bureaucracy to figure out, but surely you bring some concerns into the office? 

Grosse: You know, at the end of the day, I still have to… this is all a game. This is all new. This is sort of day one. So, I think I really need to take a little bit of time to assess, you know, what’s going on and get a good idea as to where the department is at. So in terms of, you know, it’s not about what I want. It’s what’s best for, you know, what the African Nova Scotian community can do. 

Trevor Boudreau

Bousquet: .. Do you see your position as being one of advocating for impoverished people in this province?

Boudreau: I think all roles, all ministers, all MLAs have a role of advocating for Nova Scotians. And certainly in this position, you’re looking out for some of the, you know, the ones that are have the most need. So yeah, in a way it’s, it’s a disposition but I think it is as an MLA as well fully. 

Bousquet: I think the fairest criticism of department policy over many governments and you know, this isn’t directed at your government in particular, but is the inability or the failure to to peg assistance rates to the rate of inflation. Is that something you will be visiting? 

Boudreau: As I said before, look, it’s early and I’m looking forward to meeting with my team. I haven’t done that yet. That’s on my list of things to do today… 

Kent Smith

Bousquet: … I just wonder if you have any thoughts or any framing for what is obviously one of the major issues, which is the Indigenous fisheries…

Smith: I appreciate the question. I think it’s too early for me to to really chime in on that without talking to the team, but certainly looking forward to interacting with the federal counterparts and learning more. 

Bousquet: … Is there a path, even just rhetorically, to lowering some of the tension around this issue that you can take? 

Smith: Again, thanks for the question. This is ours too. So I’ll be happy to talk to you next week and come back with some more fulsome answers for you. 

Let’s be the tiniest bit unfair here. 

The moment that Twila Grosse was elected in the Preston byelection on August 8, it was clear she would be joining Houston’s all-white cabinet as our first Black female minister of African Nova Scotian Affairs. That is not a knock on Grosse, an engaged lifelong community advocate and former member of the board of the Black Cultural Centre, who seems well suited to her new position. 

But that meant planning for the cabinet shuffle was locked in as of August 9, more than five weeks ago, more than time enough to prepare new ministers for their new responsibilities.

Any premier approaching the mid-point of his mandate — our next general election is theoretically slated for July 15, 2025 — would/should have been canvassing current ministers to determine whether they intend to reoffer. If they aren’t seeking re-election, the premier has the chance to showcase some of his backbench MLAs in more prominent roles in the lead-up to the next election, as well as giving the party time to do its necessary due diligence to find electable new candidates to take the place of those taking their leave. 

So… Houston has known for some time he planned to deep-six Keith Bain. Dunn and Craig informed him they were heading for the exits anyway. Although it isn’t clear to me whether loyal lieutenant MacFarlane’s appointment as Speaker is part of her own larger plan to gracefully ease out of provincial politics or simply a reasonable request for a less onerous job going forward, her willingness to become the “first” female speaker made getting rid of Bain seem less petty and more about, well… history.

And then, of course, Grosse’s byelection victory gave the premier’s timing its raison d’être.

But what did Premier Houston do to help his new ministers prepare for their first day in the media spotlight?

Not much.

When Houston appointed his initial cabinet back in August 2021, he issued each and every one of them with marching orders, ministerial mandate letters:

The mandate letters to Ministers outlin[e] government’s priorities to deliver solutions for Nova Scotians. The letters outline directions from the Premier to Ministers on what they need to accomplish in their new roles. The letters detail actions the government will take to improve access to health care, position the economy for growth, promote equity and inclusion and continue to keep Nova Scotians safe.

A quick aside. It would be interesting to go back through those mandate letters and compare them with reality to see what each minister actually accomplished. Most of the letters included a clause requiring ministers to “prepare a timeline for completion of all [mandated] tasks … over the next four years” within 90 days of their appointment. Those initial timelines, the letters declared, “are to be updated quarterly thereafter.” Those would make interesting reading now. 

But, for now, that is a digression.

Did the premier prepare mandate letters for each of his new ministers? Did he pass along the latest versions of the previous minister’s timeline updates? If not, why not? 

In the short term, there is nothing wrong, of course, with “thanks for the question [and]  I’ll be happy to talk to you next week and come back with some more fulsome answers for you.”

But it would have been better if the premier had provided his new cabinet ministers with something more substantive to help them launch their first day on the job.


A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner

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