Job Opening: Premier’s Office. Experience and Ability Required

Premier McNeil’s retirement announcement surprised a lot of people, including his cabinet and caucus. The list of those seeking to replace him is so far most noteworthy for who’s not on it.

Experienced cabinet ministers in high profile portfolios are usually among the leading contenders. But Karen Casey in Finance, Randy Delorey in Health, Zach Churchill in Education, and Kelly Regan in Community Services are not running. Neither is former federal minister Scott Brison and current MP Sean Fraser.

Ultimately the winner will own and have to defend McNeil’s track record, the good and the bad. Here are some key files.

  1. Power Rates: The Liberal platform in 2013 promised to stand up to Nova Scotia Power, end its monopoly by creating competition, and reduce its 9% rate of return. The 9% return remains even though interest rates are much lower; there is no competitive process; the government still allows NSPI to have a monopoly on proposing ideas for the future by letting it author the planning document for the next 25 years. They missed the chance to fix the NDP’s mistakes in negotiating Muskrat Falls power. No wonder our electricity prices are among the most expensive in Canada. Grade F
  2. Health: In 2013, the Liberals promised that everyone would have a doctor. They knew or should have known that it was not possible. It is still far from being achieved.

    They chose to amalgamate the adult health care regions. This was a promising idea but the implementation was bad. A top-heavy head office made it harder for front line leaders to make necessary decisions. Regional hospitals became alienated from senior management. McNeil was too slow to recognize the problem and allow needed changes.

    McNeil and Dr. Strang have done a commendable job of managing public expectations and behaviours in dealing with the COVID crisis. The tragic outbreak at Northwood reflected problems with long term care protocols everywhere. In September 2020 there are few places on the planet that are in a better position than the Atlantic Bubble. Grade C+

  3. Economy: Until this year Nova Scotia was progressing well, and its economy has not suffered more than others because of COVID. With the exceptions of films and ferries McNeil has avoided uneconomic handouts to corporations.

    Success has been fueled by an energetic commitment to immigration, recognition that our post-secondary sector is a positive economic asset, and support for resource industries including mining and aquaculture. McNeil made the correct but difficult decision to close Northern Pulp. Growing population and job numbers have resulted in a strong construction sector which was wisely allowed to continue during the COVID lockdown. Grade A-
  4. Education: McNeil made some big decisions. Other than for the Acadian Conseil he eliminated elected school boards which had sometimes been an embarrassment. He added pre-primary programs for four-year-olds.

    He extracted principals and other management from the teachers’ union. The battle was eventually won but it was clumsily handled. The remote schooling in spring was poorly planned and prematurely cancelled.

    The teachers have been without a collective agreement 15 months ago. The pension plan deficit exceeds $1.5 billion and is a growing burden on the province and today’s teachers who are outnumbered by retirees receiving benefits. The union and the province have had a report from the independent consultant they appointed since last year. They owe it to teachers to fix it. Grade B-

  5. Budgets: The 2013 platform promised a return to balanced budgets. McNeil delivered during the first mandate and since then. Of course, COVID will make it impossible this year. Balance was achieved in part because of prolonged low-interest rates, reducing the cost of servicing debt. But it also took a steely determination to control public sector wages. Nova Scotians are among the most taxed in Canada, but the province has one of the best recent fiscal track records. Grade A

Politically, the Liberals are well-positioned. The NDP still bears the burden of its one-mandate track record. They have returned to woolly leftist territory that is their comfort zone. Meanwhile, there is not much room to the right of the Liberals for the Progressive Conservatives to occupy.

McNeil has been front and centre on the things that have gone well. Viewers could have watched dozens of COVID briefings without becoming aware that Delorey was the Minister of Health. He has been left to defend the problems with long-term care. Casey has been more visible in her roles in Education and Finance. She wears some of the flubs in dealing with the teachers and is closely following McNeil’s direction in finance. Churchill owns the inadequate spring effort at remote schooling.

The younger ministers have not fully grown into their existing roles. Older ones have not established credibility that they are willing and able to make hard decisions.

Those are still considering a run include ministers Labi Kousoulis (labour and advanced education), Lena Metlege Diab (immigration), and Iain Rankin (lands and forestry). The winner is unlikely to have the same style and substance as McNeil. They will have to rapidly reveal who they are and what they believe.


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