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Democracy in Nova Scotia: Still closed until further notice

Premier Stephen McNeil, photo Communications Nova Scotia

Republished from Starr’s Point with Richard Starr’s kind permission. Originally published on May 29, 2020

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – The theme of recent COVID-19 updates in Nova Scotia has been “opening up.” Opening up the economy and opening up society have been on the agenda. But opening up democracy – not so much. Indeed, the past week provided more evidence, if more is needed, of Premier McNeil’s disdain for the views of others.

Sadly but not surprisingly, the Premier held firm in his opposition to a public inquiry into last month’s mass shooting, despite calls from both opposition parties in the legislature and a host of civil society groups. Ditto to a public inquiry into long-term care homes. Faced with the possibility of a second wave of the virus leading to more deaths, McNeil spoke vaguely about a national effort to “re-imagine” nursing homes to reduce the crowding that has contributed to the deal toll at Northwood.

Given the urgent need to ensure safety of nursing home residents, a full-blown public inquiry into that tragedy can maybe be put off for now while we await developments at the national level. But there’s an urgent need to know what went wrong at Northwood with a view to preventing it from happening again there and elsewhere when the expected second wave of the virus hits.

Maybe some of our locked down MLAs could be put to work on the issue through the legislature’s health committee, a proposal advanced by the opposition weeks ago. But that was not acted upon then, and the McNeil government showed again last week how little it values the work of MLAs, scuttling a meeting of the Public Accounts committee.

Public Accounts, once a free-wheeling arena for holding governments’ feet somewhere near the fire, was de-fanged by the Liberals a couple of years ago, limited to dealing solely with the sometimes technocratic reports by the auditor-general. But an attempt by opposition members to convene a meeting online for even that routine purpose was too much for McNeil’s crowd. The Liberal majority on the committee turned thumbs down.

Fiscal update needed

The national Parliament has been active, holding small-scale meetings in Ottawa and going online for regular sessions where MPs grill cabinet ministers and officials on the pandemic and other issues. Halifax Regional Council has been conducting its often-difficult budget paring business online. On Tuesday, Nova Scotia MLAs showed that even our House of Assembly can manage it. The Human Resources Committee held a one-hour online meeting, mainly to rubber-stamp a bunch of appointments to agencies, boards and commissions.

There’s another meeting of that committee scheduled for next month, but the legislature’s other five committees remain sidelined, even as the New Brunswick legislature convened to debate – in a socially distant way – the government’s response to the pandemic. New Brunswick has also put together a fiscal update, something that McNeil has rejected, despite the fact that Nova Scotia’s 2020-21 budget was outdated even before it came into effect on April 1.

It’s worth pointing out that on March 10, after an abnormally compressed session of just 13 sitting days (and almost as many nights), the legislature passed what the government proclaimed was its fifth straight balanced budget, the main feature of which was a $70 million corporate tax cut. It’s not a stretch to suggest the indecent haste with which the budget was pushed through was no accident.

Four days after the budget passed the first cases of COVID-19 were reported in Nova Scotia and the lockdown followed a week later. Revenue and expense calculations have been thrown off by the pandemic, and the budget, regarded as a pre-election document, became the first casualty of the war on COVID-19.

With the pandemic laying waste to government financial projections and talk of a $300 billion federal deficit, an open responsive government would be following the lead of most other provinces by presenting a fiscal update. But the “new normal” does not apply in this case. Nova Scotians are being told to wait for the regularly-scheduled mid-summer update on the state of the province’s books.

In the meantime, those of us concerned about such matters are free to check out what the bank economists are saying. A May 11 document from Scotiabank projected Nova Scotia’s 2020-21 deficit at $970 million – and that was before the province announced $25 million in re-opening grants and a $230 million, road work heavy infrastructure fund.

Doing things differently? 

Estimates of billion-dollar deficits – whatever the source – will come in handy for the austerity-minded McNeil in warding off calls for post-pandemic reforms such as those advocated in Are You With Us?, a joint report of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and the Nova Scotia College of Social Workers. The report calls for action to repair holes in the social safety net made glaring by the pandemic, starting with elder care and extending to programs like child care, rental housing, tuition fees, income assistance and community living for persons with intellectual or developmental disabilities. As the authors of the report put it:

It is not only the pandemic itself, but the fragility of our current systems to handle such a crisis that needs attention. This will require us to fundamentally shift our political and economic system to become sustainable, fair, and just. Are you with us? In order for this kind of change to take hold, we need to demand that our governments take a lead and do things differently. (My italics)

Early returns indicate McNeil’s has given little thought to doing things differently. The normal he wants back to seems very much like the one interrupted by the virus, something that became clear during a long exchange at last Friday’s COVID-19 briefing.

A question by Bill Martin of the Pugwash-based Six Rivers News, implying that his government cares only about Halifax and gives not a whit about rural Nova Scotia, triggered McNeil into an impassioned defence of his government’s economic record. McNeil was able to shoot down the premise of the question by pointing out that for the first time in years the majority of Nova Scotia counties – 10 of 18 – showed population growth in the last census. That might have been sufficient response, but McNeil couldn’t resist a long diatribe that came off as a buzzword-filled recital of the Greatest Liberal Hits of the last Six Years.

He went on about “world class products” presented on “a world class stage” with the help of “an international airport, a world class port” and connections “through the global North American supply chain” that has resulted in a “seafood product that has gone global.” And there was more. Because Nova Scotia “sent a message to the world that we are open for business and that we can compete on the global stage” we are “keeping young people at home”, our “population has hit an all-time high” and “we are on a march to a million.” And once COVID is dealt with “we will continue to set our sights on export opportunities, welcoming new citizens to this community, making sure that we have economic opportunity in every part of this province and we will do so by staying united and focused on one Nova Scotia, one that includes us all.”

Nothing there about doing things differently. The staying united part stands up, but with many supply chains in doubt, with international travel at a standstill, international students as a source of immigration growth uncertain and relations with one of our best seafood customers (China) in a mess, McNeil’s post-pandemic vision looks about as shaky as his fifth straight balanced budget. Nevertheless, his confidence that he has all the answers for Nova Scotia appears unshaken.

The pesky Bill Martin, pointing out that COVID-19 was limited to the Halifax region and non-existent in most rural areas, suggested that giving rural businesses a “leg up” by letting them open before Halifax would advantageous “politically speaking.”

McNeil took umbrage, declaring, with a straight face:

“I have never made a decision in this job for political reasons. I have always made a decision for what I believe is right for Nova Scotians. The politics can figure their way out and Nova Scotians will make their decision as to whether I (sic) will return as their government. I will never make a decision for political reasons.”

Hearing that, Louis XIV’s  ‘L’etat c’est moi’ comes to mind. Or, to paraphrase the grand dame of neoliberalism, Margaret Thatcher, “the gentleman’s not for turning”.

We like it so far

So far, Nova Scotians seem to be fine with the one-man show. The Prime Minister and all of the provincial leaders have seen their approval ratings improve during the pandemic, a typical response in a crisis. McNeil’s ratings have gone up more than most –  35 points since February, according to a report this week from Angus Reid. But McNeil had the most room for improvement, after bringing up the rear with an approval rating of only 28 per cent in the previous quarterly report from the polling company. The 63 per cent approval rating this time around still left him in seventh place, but it’s a vast improvement over his 16 per cent approval in the same poll a year ago.[1]

So it’s no surprise McNeil would want to keep the focus on the pandemic and his role in the battle against it while limiting opportunities for other voices – aside from that of the chief medical officer – to be heard. It may be a winning strategy in a possible election year. On the other hand, it may backfire when the pandemic passes, just providing further proof of McNeil’s anti-democratic tendencies.

Polls are fleeting and open to all sorts of interpretation. But New Brunswick Premier Blain Higgs, a controversial and abrasive leader of a minority government, chose to involve the leaders of the other three parties in the legislature in a pandemic cabinet committee. He topped the rankings in the Reid poll – 17 points ahead of McNeil. It seems that in some provinces people may see value in the politics of co-operation and listening to other peoples’ opinions.

[1] The Reid poll has a margin of error of 5.7 per cent, but its findings are in line with the Narrative Research report this week that put McNeil’s approval ratings at 77 per cent, a gain of 29 percentage points from March.

See also: McNeil moves to new crisis, taking attitude with him

Richard Starr is a former journalist, civil servant, political hack and seventh generation Nova Scotian. He is devoting his retirement to family, volunteer activities and writing about subjects that interest him and, he hopes, others at Starr’s Point, a Nova Scotia blog where facts matter, where this post was originally published.His most recent book “Equal as Citizens: the tumultuous and troubled history of a great Canadian idea” is about the history of equalization and the fiscal transfer system in Canada and came out in 2014.

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