Education featured Healthcare

Richard Starr: Nova Scotia democracy was in retreat even before McNeil

Republished from Starr’s Point, with Richard Starr’s kind permission. Originally published on February 3, 2021, before the Nova Scotia Liberals elected new leader, that is.

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – Cancelling the fall session of the Nova Scotia legislature put an exclamation point on Stephen McNeil’s disregard for democracy. The act was far from a one off, something that could be excused by the need to focus government on the pandemic. It was instead a continuation of an autocratic approach that has marked McNeil’s seven years as Premier.

The government he led ran roughshod over public sector workers, steamrolled over district health authorities, wiped out elected school boards and gave the back of the hand to opposition politicians and the media before the grand finale, practically locking-down settler British North America’s oldest elected assembly.

And unlike another autocrat of note, McNeil is leaving on a high. The latest quarterly report from Nova Scotia-based Narrative Research had his government’s approval at 73 per cent, while the Angus Reid Institute’s Premiers’ rating had McNeil at 62 per cent in November, close to the top among his peers.

According to the Reid analysis, most premiers saw approval ratings soar during the early days of the pandemic. So it may be all about COVID, and the end of the pandemic will bring a time of reckoning, when the people will rise in the name of democracy and turn against heavy-handed political leadership.

That may yet happen, but here are a couple of things to consider. First off, there is the race underway to choose McNeil’s successor. If there are any differences between the candidates on important policy issues, they’ve been too small to be seen without a microscope. And none of the three has questioned the autocratic leadership style that has prevailed in Nova Scotia these last seven years.

This non-defense of democracy is despite the fact that over the last couple of months, cancellation of the fall session of the legislature, preceded by mothballing of legislative committees, has been much in the news. And even before that, flak was coming from what remains of the Chronicle-Herald, Nova Scotia’s newspaper of record and erstwhile Liberal ally. Columnist Jim Vibert has been on this like a dog to a bone. “Our tenuous grip on democracy,” “Government’s authoritarian tilt” and “Liberals exploit tyranny of its majority” are typical of the headlines introducing Vibert’s commentaries in recent years.

One might think that with media and opposition together harping about the erosion of democracy the men who aspire to lead us would have some thoughts on the subject. If they do, the only ones that have filtered through have been either defensive or uninspiring and the result of media questions – some openness to review freedom of information and equivocation about fixed election dates (both broken promises from McNeil’s time as opposition leader).

This failure to address our battered democracy may be because (a) the candidates don’t see a problem (b) they don’t want to criticize McNeil (and by extension their own past acquiescence), (c) they don’t believe it’s an issue with most Nova Scotians, or (d) some combination of all three.

Unable to get into the heads of the candidates or their advisors, let’s consider option (c): the possibility that while some notion of the proper respect for democracy engages journalists and academics, the issue has little impact on the general public. I believe that proposition is borne out both by current public opinion, cited earlier, and past history.

Devolving up

It appears that when people today talk about the tenuous state of democracy in Nova Scotia, their focus is primarily the McNeil government’s relationship with the legislature, specifically the opposition parties and the news media. However, there is a broader definition of democracy that goes beyond the right to vote every few years for MLAs, MPs or municipal councillors. It is “participatory democracy,” which was much discussed during the heyday of Trudeau The First, but rarely mentioned these days.

The concept is usefully described below by the Greens, a party so far unburdened by compromises of governing.

“We strive for a democracy in which all citizens have the right to express their views, and are able to directly participate in the environmental, economic, social and political decisions which affect their lives; so that power and responsibility are concentrated in local and regional communities, and devolved only where essential to higher tiers of governance.”

Looking back over the last 25 years in Nova Scotia, it’s clear we’ve been drifting away from any notion of power and responsibility at the local or regional level. The mid-1990s were a pivotal period as the reform-minded government of John Savage threw out the baby of participatory democracy along with the patronage tainted bath water of an entrenched political culture. Key features of reform were centralization and amalgamation, affecting municipalities, school boards and health facilities.

Municipal amalgamation

Citizens in the two major urban areas felt the tip of the amalgamation spear when Savage Liberals, without consultation, dissolved four municipal units in Halifax county and eight in Cape Breton county and replaced them with regional municipalities. There was plenty of initial outrage, which likely contributed to the near defeat of the Liberals in 1998. But once amalgamation and the accompanying sharp reduction in municipal representation became a fait accompli, no subsequent provincial government chose to revisit the subject.

On the contrary, under provincial legislation mandating the utility board to review the number of polling districts council sizes were reduced. Council membership has been cut from 16 to 12 in Cape Breton and from 23 to 16 in Halifax.

In the latter case, the municipality, as ordered, went to the board in 2011, seeking to maintain 23 districts. But the board, citing a mere 59 letters from the public and a third-party opinion poll favouring a reduction, slashed council numbers by 30 percent. This occurred almost without notice and no one seems to have questioned the board’s superficial reasoning. The end result in Halifax is that municipal councillors, supposedly representing the level of government closest to the people, are responsible for districts that cover areas larger than provincial electoral districts.

School Boards

I have vented before about the McNeil government’s decision to abolish elected school boards, the conclusion of a process that began in 1996 when the Savage government amalgamated 22 district school boards into six (eventually seven) regional boards and the Conseil Scolaire Acadien. As a result, the possibility of direct participation suffered a setback in all parts of the province. In Halifax, for example, the number of elected school board members dropped from about 40 down to ten, creating districts that were too large for effective representation. But unlike amalgamation of municipal units there was little opposition at the time,a state of indifference that continued up to and beyond the final demise of school boards in 2018.

School advisory councils, created as part of the 1990s amalgamation, were to be given a larger role post-abolition. But a recent investigation by CBC reporter Brittany Wentzell found that only about a quarter of 333 school websites had posted advisory council meeting dates, agendas or minutes. One school district even refused to disclose membership on school advisory councils, citing privacy concerns.

Legislation nullifying elected school boards also provided for a Provincial Advisory Council on Education, made up of 12 members from across the province, plus representatives from the Mi’kmaq, Acadian and African-Canadian communities. The Council’s job is to “provide advice directly to the Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development.” The nature of that advice to the “higher tiers of government” does not emerge from perusing barebones Council minutes, the most recent of which were posted in December, 2019. No doubt the pandemic will be blamed for the gap.

Health governance

If you pay attention to the media, the Nova Scotia Health Authority (NSHA) is the centralized bureaucracy that everybody loves to hate. Colton LeBlanc, a Conservative MLA, nicely summed up the general view of the McNeil government’s health governance creation during a speech in the legislature. It was “a big bureaucracy in Halifax that perplexes Nova Scotians. It is shrouded in a veil of secrecy, has closed-door meetings, has taken away any local decision making, fails to implement any local decision making, doesn’t answer to the taxpayers of Nova Scotia, and doesn’t listen to the needs of Nova Scotians.”

Few outside government or the NSHA would disagree much with that assessment, but like a lot  of the criticism of the NSHA, it arrives without any clear articulation of how transparency and local decision-making can be brought to bear.

Ever since the modernizing Savage Liberals eliminated local hospital boards, successive governments have been messing around with health governance. Four regional boards established by the Savage government became nine district health authorities under John Hamm’s Conservatives before the McNeil government’s scorched earth approach led to the NSHA. Meantime, Community Health Boards, created to provide the local decision-making that disappeared with hospital boards, were stillborn.

This is despite the fact that, as Katherine Fierlbeck points out in her exhaustive Nova Scotia: A Health System Profile, health consultations going back as far as 1972 advocated local control, a message repeated by the 1989 Royal Commission on Health Care and reiterated in 1992 by the Nova Scotia Health Council and in 1999 by a ministerial task force.

The 1999 task force, convinced of the necessity for local involvement and decision-making in health care delivery, even recommended “a public process of election and/or nomination” of community health board members. Community boards would also provide two-thirds of the membership on regional boards. But governments moved in the opposite direction. Community health boards became fig leaves for centralization, merely advisory bodies to health authorities, without an independent budget, legal or corporate status.

There once was scope for what Katherine Fierlbeck calls a “participatory and community oriented thrust” in health governance, but it was allowed to slip away. Upward devolution took place with little or no resistance. Indeed, the fact the McNeil Liberals put its promise to replace nine health boards with a single authority near the center of its 2013 election platform speaks to the public’s lack of passion for local decision-making in health care.

What now?

Nova Scotians have allowed a lot of power to be concentrated at the provincial level. It may be naïve to think that we can go back to more compact municipal districts in Halifax or Cape Breton, or elected school boards and community health boards throughout the province. Perhaps the only practical route to restoring meaningful democratic engagement is through the legislature.

Stephen McNeil’s high-handedness has shown how important it is to reform the rules of the legislature to keep the provincial government accountable. But reform efforts must be aimed not only at correcting abuses that have become worse under his leadership but also take into account the power shift that has occurred over the last 25 years.

I’ll take a run at the legislative reform issue after we see whether the new Premier has some ideas on democratic accountability that did not come up during his run for leadership of the Liberal party. Watch this space.

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