The new Tim Houston sounds like the old Stephen McNeil

When Tim Houston was first elected premier, says our columnist, his willingness to acknowledge mistakes was refreshing. Today, it’s, ‘Who me? I don’t make mistakes.’

A man with salt and pepper hair and wearing a dark suit with blue tie sits at a desk in front of a lineup of Nova Scotian flags.
Premier Tim Houston. Photo: Jennifer Henderson

Absolute power may — or may not — corrupt absolutely, but it sure works its dark magic swiftly.

Exhibit A for the prosecution: Timothy Jerome Houston.

Almost exactly a year ago, just a little more than two months after Houston had been elected Nova Scotia’s 30th premier with a majority government (in our first-past-the-post province, it is possible, even likely, to win an “absolute majority” of seats in the House of Assembly with just 38.44 per cent of the popular vote), I wrote a column headlined: “Our New Premier Seems Comfortable in His Own Skin.

Although I acknowledged it was early and political honeymoons rarely last long, I had to confess I’d been impressed by the openness our new premier seemed to bring to the job at hand. For example….

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.

More substantively, there was Houston’s response after he botched the African Nova Scotian file, picking “a seventy-year-old white guy whose resumé couldn’t even be lip-sticked  to establish any meaningful bona fides with the province’s Black community” as his minister of the Office of African Nova Scotian Affairs. Then he had doubled down on insult to injury by firing the department’s recently hired Black deputy minister. And he had done it all without consulting the community.

After the predictable outcry, Houston hastily agreed to a private meeting with Black community leaders, during which he apologized and, while not reversing his initial decisions, promised to consult before acting in the future.

Later he addressed what happened publicly: “It’s clear to me that decisions that I took offended the community. It was not my intention to offend anyone, and I apologize for offending them.”

Shortly after that, on another controversial issue, he announced his government would not appeal a decision by the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal, which had determined the province systemically discriminated against people with disabilities.

The issue pre-dated Houston’s election. It had begun in 2014 as a human rights complaint by three people who had been locked in a psychiatric unit at the Nova Scotia Hospital for years while on a waiting list for community placements. Two of the complainants had died before the Court of Appeal finally got around to deciding in their favour, soon after Houston’s election.

Houston’s explanation, from that column:

“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.”

That was then.

Then seems like a lifetime ago now. These days Tim Houston sounds more like My-Way-or-Get-out-of-the-Way Stephen McNeil.

It didn’t take his government long, for example, to change the premier’s mind about appealing the court’s decision, though he insisted it wasn’t about the specifics but the broader ramifications of the decision.

Luckily, last spring the Supreme Court of Canada not only refused to hear the province’s appeal but also awarded costs to the Disability Rights Coalition, the plaintiffs in the case.

Which brings us to the here and now as the legislature reconvened last week for its fall sitting.

An older white man with wispy white hair and a white moustache wearing a black blazer
Speaker for the moment Keith Bain

Let’s start with the Bain boondoggle.

Houston, we already knew, wasn’t happy with Speaker Keith Bain. In March 2022, Bain closed the legislature to the public briefly after a PC MLA tested positive for COVID-19.

The premier, as was his right, disagreed. “Our government does not agree with the decision the Speaker’s office made on their own.”

And, the Speaker, as was his right, responded. “The legislature is independent of government” he said in a statement. “The Speaker makes all directives concerning the health and safety for everyone working at and visiting Province House.”

The disagreement was filed, but far from forgotten.

Later in the spring, the Speaker did what he was required to do by law after a provincial election. He appointed an independent review of MLA salaries.

The premier was so unhappy with the optics of that that he called a special session of the legislature to kill its recommended salary increases.

Somewhere along the line, Houston decided to fire Bain, whom he had personally nominated for the job the year before and whose trained-seal caucus — see below ­— had endorsed him in an all-party secret ballot in the legislature. (CBC reporter Jean Laroche offered this excellent analysis of why the Bain case isn’t just insider political baseball, and why it should matter to the rest of us.)

A few weeks before the opening of last week’s fall sitting of the House of Assembly, word leaked not only that Houston wanted Bain out but also that Bain was resisting.

He’d been elected by the members of the legislature, Bain correctly explained to reporters, and he wasn’t planning to leave unless they voted him out in a could-be-embarrassing-for-the-premier secret ballot.

There was a predictable brouhaha — and equally predictable for the new new Tim Houston — he blamed the media for the mess: “Houston accused reporters of trying to manufacture a story about alleged plans to oust Bain, although the premier didn’t elaborate.”

Then, late last week, the PC caucus issued a news release announcing that Bain would resign by April 1 — and they had Bain’s signature on a letter to confirm it.

But Bain says that wasn’t the way it went down. He’d had a private meeting with the premier on Wednesday and, while he signed the letter, he’d understood the discussions were private and that there was room for further discussion.

The premier’s office refused to release the letter and Houston claimed again, with a straight face, that the “whole situation has definitely been overblown… These are private discussions. We’ll always maintain private discussions. That’s the way I conduct myself.”

He did not mention that it was his Tory caucus that made the latest private discussion very public. By pre-emptively announcing Bain’s resignation.

And that, it is clear, was no accident.

L’état, c’est moi, as Louis XIV (or Stephen McNeil) might have said.

Consider what happened in the legislature’s public accounts committee Wednesday when the PC members of the committee voted as one Mindless Mannequin to prevent Nova Scotia Power officials from appearing before them to answer questions.

And then refused to answer questions from reporters about their vote as they fled the scene of the crime:

“I have no comment,” said Glace Bay MLA John White as he and colleagues Trevor Boudreau (Richmond), John MacDonald (Hants East) and Nolan Young (Shelburne) walked by reporters. Hants West Tory MLA Melissa Sheehy-Richard wouldn’t talk either, saying she had a meeting to attend.

During the committee session itself, their comments were… well, inane. “Nova Scotia Power is, I’ll remind us, a privately owned company. It is not an appropriate witness,” declared Nolan Young.

Uh… earth to Mr. Young: Nova Scotia Power officials did appear before the committee in May.

Oh, and, by the way, Nova Scotia Power is a privately-owned public monopoly, thanks to decisions by a former Progressive Conservative government.

And, by the way too, the utility is asking for a massive rate increase.

And, by the way again, it is routinely failing to meet regulator-mandated performance standards and missing provincial emission reduction targets (fines for which the company was forgiven).

Not an appropriate witness?

One might suggest that Young and his fellow Timbits are not appropriate members to be sitting on a committee charged with overseeing the public accounts.

During that same meeting, the Tories also used their majority to prevent the committee from hearing from another logical witness: Nova Scotia Health’s Houston-appointed interim CEO Karen Oldfield. The NDP wanted to ask her about the impact of emergency department understaffing on government expenses.

That’s well within the terms of the public accounts committee’s mandate and Oldfield, as CEO, seems the responsible person to address the issue.

Don’t tell that to Nolan Young,

Instead, Young successfully moved that Oldfield be replaced as a witness with the vice-president of operations for the health authority’s central zone.

But… wait a minute. Wasn’t it that newly minted Premier Houston himself who promised Nova Scotians last September he would change legislature rules to restore the public accounts committee’s Liberal-savaged powers and make government more accountable?

The decisions that a government makes, they should be willing to defend in public forums and my government will be no different. It’s the right thing to do in terms of accountability.

Oh, right, that was the New Premier Tim Houston before he became the Old/New Premier Tim Houston.

Same old, same old.

Pity.

***

A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner

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