The Liberal Record: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly
Posted April 21, 2017
Discerning observers will have noticed a barrage of spending announcements from the province’s Liberal government, and concluded that an election may be called shortly after the budget is presented on April 27th.
In light of that possibility, a reflection on the government’s performance during the current mandate is warranted.
The Good: We had a record year for immigration in 2016 because of the active pursuit of provincial nominee opportunities, and our embrace of about 1,500 Syrian refugees. Getting our population growing again is crucial to the province’s long term viability.
Except for film and ferries, as noted below, the government has avoided the pattern of large handouts to corporate employers done in the past by governments of all three parties. Payroll rebates, which are temporary and only paid when the jobs are created, are being managed with greater discipline.
Amalgamating the nine health care regions appears to have been a good choice, although not without challenges. The single biggest benefit is more effective resource utilization. Costs are growing very slowly. The government is more restrained in its meddling than its predecessors. Dispersing the many activities in the aging VG to different locations is a much better and faster choice than building another large hospital in south end Halifax.
The single best achievement by the government has been to bring balance the books. This is a must for a province with a population that is stagnant and aging.
To achieve that, it has had to take a tough stand on pay and benefits for public sector workers. Those discussions have now been concluded with legislation for the teachers, and a similar government position can be anticipated with health care workers and civil servants if the Liberals are re-elected.
Some observers might wonder whether the cost of the current spending spree could have instead been used to give the teachers and others a deal that they would have found more acceptable. It wouldn’t.
Many of the announcements are small, or the cost is shared with the federal government, or is spread over several years. By comparison, a single 1% increase in public sector pay would cost the province $50 million every year.
As a result of the Liberals’ discipline, the province has one of the best fiscal track records in the country.
The Bad: Having started in the right direction in limiting the amount of film subsidies, the government subsequently retreated to the point that there is no effective cap on how much will be spent. None of this spending can be justified by the economic impact it creates, nor does the industry have any hope of becoming self-sustaining.
A new Yarmouth ferry was launched, contributing fewer than 1% of our visitors. On the ferry, they cost close to $1,000 each. There is no continuing economic benefit.
The government has vetoed the possibility of fracking for oil and gas and, more importantly, of new opportunities for marine salmon aquaculture.
The one area of big new investment by the government has been education. There is not much to show for it, in significant part because of conflict with the union.
Energy policy has been a mess and a cesspool of deception. Former Minister Younger dismissed a thoughtful report on fracking before he had time to read it. He also missed the chance to improve on the poor deal the NDP government made on electricity from Muskrat Falls. The Liberals had promised to make Nova Scotia Power pay for the cost of Efficiency Nova Scotia; instead, they hid it in the cost of your electricity, pretending that they had “removed” it.
The Ugly: The Liberals had more than a few clumsy moments. The change to the film industry subsidies reneged on their election promise. It was abruptly introduced, and seemed to be based on a misunderstanding of how corporate taxes worked.
An arbitration process to unify health care unions ended in shambles. A change in pricing of seniors’ Pharmacare was ill considered and deceptively portrayed. It was hastily withdrawn after the flaws became evident.
Overreacting to the initial job action by teachers, the government announced that schools would be closed until legislation could be passed to order teachers back to work, a process likely to last at least a week. It retreated two days later.
Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal Minister Geoff MacLellan has proudly announced his unwillingness to provide any leadership on the question of highway twinning.
In each of these stories, the damage done is primarily to the government’s credibility.
Conclusion: Voters will decide whether the positive achievements earn the government a second mandate despite its clumsiness on some issues, and lack of wisdom, courage, or truthfulness on others.
Part of their decision will be based on whether the opposition parties can credibly argue that they would do better.
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