Our new premier seems comfortable in his own skin

It’s early and it doesn’t mean we’ll like where he leads us, but Tim Houston’s human responses to his early missteps are refreshing when compared to Angry Stephen McNeil and his successor, the Puppet Masters’ Script Reader. It’s a… start.

A man wearing a dark suit, white shirt and no tie speaks at a podium. In the background are four Nova Scotia flags, coloured blue, yellow and red.
Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston speaks to reporters in Halifax on Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021. — Photo: Zane Woodford

I was listening — but distractedly — to the latest provincial COVID briefing last week, so I didn’t catch the reporter’s question. But I did hear Premier Tim Houston’s chuckle. “I don’t know,” he said simply and referred the question to Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer of health.

It was just a minor moment, but it seemed to capture something different — and refreshing — about this new government: a premier who seems comfortable enough in his own skin to admit he doesn’t know, and to laugh about it.

That may not seem like a big deal but consider our most recent comparables. First, of course, there was Always Angry Stephen McNeil, who was succeeded by Iain Rankin, The Puppet Masters’ Script Reader, neither of whom could ever acknowledge doubt let alone admit they might have been wrong about something.

I don’t mean to get ahead of myself.

Timothy Jerome Houston has only been the 30th premier of Nova Scotia for south of two months. There have already been serious stumbles and gaffes, too mnay half measures when the situation called for better. And, of course, we have yet to see our new government’s full legislative agenda.

But, on balance, I must say I prefer Houston’s more human responses to controversy and conflict to what has gone before.

Let’s start with the new government’s first mess of its own making — and its response.

Although Houston’s Progressive Conservatives did run a modestly more diverse set of candidates in this election, not one of its African Nova Scotian candidates won their riding.

Instead of at least considering options outside the political box, Houston immediately defaulted to the political default, dancing only with the ones who’d won for him. He chose as his minister of the Office of African Nova Scotian Affairs a seventy-year-old white guy whose resumé couldn’t even be lip-sticked — the Tories tried — to establish any meaningful bona fides with the province’s Black community.

Perhaps because the PCs’ on-the-ground connections within the Black community are almost non-existent, Houston then blithely doubled down on his initial insensitivity, firing the recently Rankin-appointed Black deputy minister of African Nova Scotian Affairs as part of an otherwise not untypical post-election housecleaning of senior civil servants. And then he did it again when he fired the entire Nova Scotia Health Authority Board, including its two recently appointed racialized members, collateral damage in his healthcare reset.

Within a few weeks, nearly 300 African Nova Scotians had gathered for an urgent online “Black Family Meeting,” to discuss these affronts.

The group fired off a letter to the premier calling out what it called “the systemic racist approach to decision-making that was taken by our elected government and the lack of respect to our history and experience… Moving forward without our hard-won representation, our voices and contributions and valuing our distinct history, is an act of anti-Black racism and White supremacy,” the letter said flatly. The group demanded an “immediate meeting” with the premier.

In late September, Houston and his white minister of African Nova Scotian Affairs, Pat Dunn, did meet face to face with a high-powered delegation from the Black community that included “former Lt. Gov. Mayann Francis, the moderator of the African United Baptist Association David Provo, Danielle Hodges of the Association of Black Social Workers, Sharon Davis-Murdoch of the Health Association of African Canadians, and Robert Wright of the Decade for People of African Descent.”

Houston and Dunn “were a little bit nervous,” reported Carolann Wright, a spokesperson for the group. “I think they were a little bit concerned about … what this would mean. Because there’s a lot of things at stake here in terms of the decision that was made, versus what can we do to mitigate this.”

But they did meet. And Houston did apologize. The group presented Houston with a roadmap to move forward. Houston promised he would respond within two weeks.

Last week, during a post-cabinet news conference with reporters, Houston also addressed the issue publicly. “It’s clear to me that decisions that I took offended the community,” he explained. “It was not my intention to offend anyone, and I apologize for offending them.”

Although Houston didn’t back down on his choice of MLA Dunn as minister — which is in keeping with parliamentary tradition — he said he would revisit the appointment of the white deputy minister for African Nova Scotian affairs. “I would say that this was something that we had identified,” Houston told reporters, “and we accept [members of the Black community’s] concerns on that and they’ll see some action there.”

As for the community’s suggested roadmap, Houston added, “I think we’ll find some common ground there. They’ll see some action from this government that I hope is received in the spirit that it’s meant, which is to make sure that we build a bridge together and go forward together.”

The Black community will, rightly, be wary and watching carefully to see what Houston actually does now. But they can at least hope, based on his words, that he’s learned some lessons and will, belatedly, listen to their concerns.

Houston’s second first-days gaffe centred around affordable housing and the need to extend rent controls, which had been imposed early in the pandemic and are currently set to expire in February 2022.

Ideologically, Houston opposes rent control, arguing the real cause of the current housing crisis is a lack of supply, and that more supply is, therefore, the answer. (It’s an argument that ignores both the immediate crisis and the reality that too much of the future housing on the drawing board is far from affordable… but I digress.)

During his campaign, Houston had promised to let rent control lapse in February.

During his first COVID briefing, a reporter asked the new premier why he would end rent control before Nova Scotia’s housing stock had increased.

“What does that do to those that were thinking about building?” Houston asked back, clearly thinking more about the interests of landlords and developers than tenants or, certainly, the homeless. “What I want is more housing stock in this province, and we don’t want to do something in the interim that gets us away from achieving the goal that we need to achieve.”

Houston hasn’t changed his mind about rent control versus housing supply, but he has backed away from his insistence on a February end date. The cap on rent increases, he said after a cabinet meeting last week, will now continue at least as long as the state of emergency. “I have not made any decision to separate those two things,” he told reporters.

That’s still not the right answer as far as I’m concerned — rent controls are an important long-term way to keep the rights of tenants and landlords in balance, as well as encourage the building of more affordable housing — but it’s still a better answer than the one Houston arrived in office with.

It’s a start.

As was Houston’s announcement last week that the government would not rotely appeal a recent decision by the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal that the province discriminated against people with disabilities.

“I just don’t think anyone should really have to take their government to court to make their government do the right thing,” explained Houston, who said he had sent condolences to the families of the complainants who had died before the decision was announced and praised their courage in coming forward. “So, we received the message loud and clear,” he added. “We will work with the community to make sure that the supports are in place.”

Again, Houston wouldn’t go so far as to acknowledge what the court clearly also concluded — that the province systemically discriminated against people with mental disabilities — but the quick decision not to appeal is the right immediate response.

So was his decision last Friday to convene a meeting of all 11 Nova Scotia members of parliament as well as both opposition leaders to discuss how to jointly pressure Ottawa for financial help for the Atlantic Loop, a $5-billion energy project that could help the province get off coal faster.

It’s all just a beginning, of course, and all of it in tentative baby steps.

But better than so much of what passed for our recent governance.

Tim Houston’s first real test will come this week with his throne speech to open the second sitting of the 64th session of the House of Assembly, Premier Tim Houston presiding.

Then we will begin to get a better idea of where our new premier wants to take us.

A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner

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