Appraising the Liberals’ First Year
Posted October 10, 2014
This week marks the Liberals’ one year anniversary in power. Government is never easy and the Liberals inherited many substantial challenges. How have they performed? A look at some of the key choices.
The Liberals made lots of promises to spend more and they delivered a series of initiatives affecting class sizes, math skills and literacy, students with special needs, and availability of guidance counselling. These will cost $65 million over four years.
The fiasco with the Drake online courses shone light on the rich rewards provided for teacher upgrades, whether or not they are needed or used to improve student outcomes. Government has taken no steps to reform this expensive and unproductive policy. Meanwhile Nova Scotian students are again receiving mediocre results in nation-wide testing of science, math, and reading skills.
Substantial reform of the economic development programs and agencies points to a better focused strategy. Large ill-considered handouts to businesses have stopped. The shape of Invest Nova Scotia, which will replace the discredited Jobs Fund, has yet to be revealed. Regulations are not expected to be available till next year.
The new Yarmouth ferry service was launched with an inexperienced and underfinanced supplier. The season started late and ended early, and consumed almost the entire $21 million subsidy that was supposed to last seven years.
The worst features of the NDP’s employer-unfriendly first contract arbitration law were removed, making the province slightly more attractive as a place to do business. There is plenty of scope for further improvement.
A draft report on Aquaculture confirmed that ocean-based farming should continue, albeit with stricter regulation. Government has shown no sense of urgency about producing the new regulations that would allow further development to occur, and require existing facilities to be better regulated.
The government’s plan to amalgamate regional health authorities is proceeding methodically. Labour disruptions were effectively addressed in the spring and a consolidation of bargaining agreements enforced in the fall. The need to control expense growth is recognized. So lots of good decisions but the final product is yet to be seen or tested.
Remarkably little was done to address the fiscal challenge in the first budget. The one significant saving resulted from cancellation of the graduate retention rebate, which was not cost effective. The savings are largely eaten up by new education initiatives. Government is talking a good game about public sector employment levels and wages but so did the NDP, who didn’t deliver. Concrete steps must be taken in the coming months.
The NDP’s plan to cut HST, which was never affordable, was cancelled.
A crucial opportunity to properly reform the Teachers’ Pension plan was missed. The measures taken were mildly useful but an inadequate response to the problem. A government that promised transparency has been unwilling to disclose how its measures would work.
The promised introduction of competition from renewable suppliers has had negligible impact on customers. The commitment to eliminate the efficiency tax was shown to be bogus. Instead of being visible on power bills, it will be hidden in the overall rates. Government is requiring that most of the cost be postponed to later years, so it looks like a cost reduction when in fact ratepayers are just being forced to borrow money from Nova Scotia Power, further improving their profits.
Having been harshly critical of the Muskrat Falls arrangements before the election, the Liberals did a U-turn and supported a final deal that was opposed by advocates for both businesses and individual households.
The well-considered Wheeler report on fracking was ignored, with a ban announced two days after it was released. After considerable blowback the minister retreated to a more neutral position. The actual legislation has earned condemnation from environmental groups feeling that what appeared to be a victory might be taken away from them. The minister has thus managed to disappoint voters on all sides of an issue, a unique achievement.
The government deserves credit for embracing an initiative launched by the NDP. The final report was released on February 12th. The initial response was painfully slow—it took four months for the OneNS coalition of political and community leaders to be formed and have its first meeting, and another three months for the second meeting.
The Ivany Report’s short title is “Now or Never”. The slow response combined with the quick ban on fracking might have persuaded many observers that the government had opted for “Never”. In September the pace of activity by the OneNS coalition picked up. Visibility and communications were much improved.
Ivany was emphatic that much of what needs to change is with Nova Scotians as a whole, not just within government. It is nevertheless true that visible leadership, in particular by the Premier, is crucial. It has not happened.
In total, there is a mix of good and bad choices and some missed opportunities. The province is not in good shape. Stronger and more visible leadership, and a greater sense of urgency, are needed in the government’s second year.
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