I had been hoping to say something positive about Stephen McNeil’s government — it is, after all, the season — but as soon as I could consider it, his government inevitably did one more something that was so bone-headed, so egregious, so cringe-worthy, I couldn’t help but revert to my natural nattering-nabob-of-negativism self. And yet…
I had been hoping to say something positive about Stephen McNeil’s government — it is, after all, the season of speaking positively — but as soon as I began to put electronic keyboard to computer-screen praise, his government inevitably did one more something that was so bone-headed, so egregious, so cringe-worthy, I couldn’t help but revert to my natural nattering-nabob-of-negativism self.
I will — I promise — say something nice before this column reaches its -30-.
But first, there’s these…
Last week, Nova Scotia Auditor General Michael Pickup released a report on how well the McNeil government is managing what will be the largest capital project in Nova Scotia’s history, the massive $2-billion Halifax Infirmary Expansion.
The answer: not well at all.
In January 2018, Deloitte, which the government itself had hired to advise it on project governance, came up with a list of 18 recommendations the department of transportation and infrastructure renewal needed to implement to ensure the project would be a success.
According to the auditor general, 11 of those 18 recommendations have not been fully implemented, including seven considered “critical.” Worse, “no one [from the government] was assigned to monitor implementation of the recommendations until our office asked for a status update in June 2019.”
At least some of those un-implemented recommendations focus on the government’s own lack of expertise in managing controversial, and usually far-more-costly-than-predicted public-private partnerships. Given what we already know about how badly P3 projects haven’t worked out for the governments that have engaged in them and the public that pays for them, that’s especially scary.
But there’s more, and it gets still more worse. That consultant’s report the auditor general refers to has never been publicly released. If not for the auditor general, we wouldn’t know even as little as we do.
Before we leave the auditor general — and the government whose works he audits — consider this too.
Last year, the Liberals used their majority on the public accounts committee to rejig the mandate of the public accounts committee — which had served as an all-powerful, all-encompassing overseer of government spending — to limit it only to discussions of topics covered in the auditor general’s reports.
The committee’s Liberal chair claimed at the time this was in response to complaints from the auditor general the committee didn’t consider his reports in a timely fashion.
Last week, Pickup told reporters that, while he is keen for the committee to “consider our work… I never once said, ‘You should limit your work to what we do.”
And then there’s this.
After an arbitrator ruled the McNeil government acted in bad faith when it arbitrarily shuffled 60 early childhood specialists — psychologists, social workers and speech-language pathologists — out of the teacher’s union, McNeil attacked the arbitrator in his finest fake-news, Trump-style for deciding that the “children of this province deserve service eight months of the year, not 12.”
The arbitrator did no such thing. He simply ruled the way the government went about its business of messing with union rights was wrong — and deliberate.
Paul Wozney, the president of the NSTU, says his union was — and is — willing to negotiate an arrangement to ensure specialist educators are available all year, and that the specialists themselves are equally interested in finding a solution.
Instead of negotiating this issue, the McNeil government, which is already in the middle of contract negotiations with the NSTU, is threatening to introduce new legislation to get its way.
The government is refusing to make public a consultant’s “system design review” of the province’s Emergency Health Services.
Health Minister Randy Delorey — who initially billed the $130,000 study as a once-in-25-year review “to ensure the system continues to follow best practices” and said it would be made public — now claims the report, which landed on his desk nearly a year late, can’t be released because it will “inform our negotiations” on a new contract with the service provider.
Uh… Let’s press pause on that.
The service provider — EMC Emergency Medical Care Inc. — has been the service provider since forever. What could possibly be in the consultant’s report the company — and its paramedics — wouldn’t already be aware of? If the government is planning major changes as a result of the consultant’s report, shouldn’t they be making EMC and its paramedics aware of them? Even if there are specific recommendations that could affect the negotiations, why not just redact them and make the rest of the report public?
Why not indeed? As Tory leader Tim Houston put it in an interview with the business website allnovascotia.com: “I wish the government would stop seeing Nova Scotians as the enemy.”
And then, of course, there is this. There is always this.
Following last week’s cabinet meeting, Transportation Minister Lloyd Hines told reporters the Bar Harbor ferry terminal renovations — which were supposed to be finished last spring in plenty of time for the Yarmouth-Maine summer tourist season, and then were “nearly done” many times during a summer season that never happened — are now “very near completion.”
That’s… uh… not very re-assuring.
All that said, I did promise some words of praise for our government. And I will deliver.
Start with the fact Nova Scotia’s presumed-consent law on organ donations is expected to come into effect in 2020.
According to Canadian Blood Services, 90 per cent of us support the idea of donating our organs on our death but fewer than 25 per cent of us actually register to do so.
As Dr. Stephen Beed, the medical director of the province’s critical care organ donation program, told the CBC at the time of the legislation’s introduction, spending time at the bedside with patients and their families brings the significance of donation into sharper perspective. “It’s the only good we can offer to a family that’s going through the worst days you can imagine in certain clinical circumstances, and we all understand the benefits for the recipients.”
Nova Scotia’s roll-out has not been not without its flaws. Despite the government’s promises, there’s been little public education about organ donation in advance of the legislation coming into effect and it will still be possible for family members to deny consent after death.
That said, Nova Scotia will become the first North American jurisdiction to implement presumed consent legislation. An accomplishment worth praising.
And then there’s this. Earlier this month, Nova Scotia became the first province in Canada to ban flavoured-vaping products in an attempt to crack down on what has become a dangerous epidemic of youth vaping.
Originally seen as a way to help adults wean themselves off cigarettes, vaping has instead morphed into a new and powerful marketing ploy to lure teenagers into tobacco addiction. According to one study, youth vaping nearly doubled between 2017 and 2018. Worse, health officials have now begun reporting significant numbers of vaping-related illnesses, including among young people.
The role of flavoured vaping products in all of this? Well, according to a recent study by Smoke Free Nova Scotia, 48 per cent of 16-24-year-olds surveyed said they would give up vaping if flavoured vaping juices were no longer available.
“We’re setting a stake in the sand and setting the stage for other jurisdictions across the country with a full flavour ban,” Health Minister Randy Delorey explained as he announced the legislation earlier this month.
While there is still much research to be done, the government’s decision to pre-emptively opt for health is also worthy or praise.
And, finally, there is this, also praiseworthy item. Last Monday, Health Minister Randy Delorey announced the province’s pharmacists can now write prescriptions for birth control, urinary tract infections and shingles medications, as well as renew some other prescriptions without a doctor’s say-so and, even better, without billing patients for the service. The province, says Delorey, has set aside more than $9-million over the next five years to cover the prescribing fees.
Delorey himself called it “one more step to ensure that Nova Scotians who may not have a family physician today are able to receive some additional services.”
Although this doesn’t mark a national or international first — pharmacists in Saskatchewan and Alberta can already do the same and more — it is still welcome.
Hmmm… Given that all of these praiseworthy initiatives come from the Nova Scotia’s often maligned department of health, it’s worth asking what role the province’s interim deputy minister of health had played in them.
In May, Premier McNeil announced he was appointing plain-spoken former Dalhousie Medical School dean Tom Marrie as interim deputy minister to “reset the relationship” between the department and the Nova Scotia Health Authority, which itself had been the creation of McNeil’s messy 2013 election promise to merge the existing health authorities into one.
Marrie has clearly had an impact. Last month, the health authority announced “major changes… to improve local decision-making and address concerns the organization is overly bureaucratic and complex.”
And Doctors Nova Scotia described Marrie’s appointment as the “turning point” in its own difficult negotiations with the government that led to a new wage deal last month.
What was Marrie’s role, if any, in those other decisions I mentioned? I don’t know, but I do know he told reporters at the time of his appointment that he intended to be “very frank” in speaking medical truth to political power.
If that’s the case, the bad news — there’s always a dark cloud in every silver lining — is that Marrie, who was “supposed to be easing into retirement” when he got the call to take the reins at the health department, will be gone as soon as the province settles on a new permanent deputy minister for the department.
But I digress. For now, let us just be grateful for the little good news we can repeat. It is the season, after all.
This column first appeared in the Halifax Examiner December 16, 2019.