Nova Scotia’s Politicians Have Had A Very Busy Year

The PC’s first 16 months in government reflect the premier’s sense of urgency. For some files that impatience has been valuable, in others it has been harmful.

Population growth has been the salient factor driving both challenges and opportunities. In the five years ending July 1, 2022, Nova Scotia has added 70,000 residents, 29,000 of them in the most recent year. That is a good start on the goal of reaching 2 million Nova Scotians by 2060.

The new arrivals are younger, so the average age in the province has stopped going up. They bring new energy and opportunities to the communities where they settle, and their taxes support government programs.

Schools that were at risk of closing are refilling. Providers of goods and services have more customers. Many new arrivals have jobs prearranged with employers struggling to fill job openings, most importantly in health care.

The larger work force accelerates the province’s economy and helps the province pay its bills. A budgeted $585 million deficit in the year ending last March turned into a $351 million surplus, due to the growing numbers plus federal supports.

At the same time, the new arrivals arrive when both housing and health care are struggling to keep up with demand. Many bring skills that are part of the solution.

Health care was the most prominent feature of the 2021 election campaign, and has been the area receiving the most attention. The challenge of covid and other respiratory illnesses would be great even in ordinary times but is exacerbated by population growth.

Health is close to $100 million over its $4.3 billion budget, more than a third of all departmental expenses. The province’s plan to improve health care is divided into six “solutions.” Some of the underlying actions are a plan to make a plan, others are already showing progress.

They include recruitment of health care professionals and expanding the number of doctors and nurses being trained, increasing long term care facilities to take pressure off hospitals, expanding virtual care, and creating a patient transfer service to free up ambulances.

More health care workers will not be enough if there is too little space for patients. The stalled QE2 project, intended to replace the decaying Victoria General, has been a serious problem.

The province plans to add multiple facilities off the Halifax peninsula, small enough that they can be designed and built more quickly than the QE2 expansion. This is the right strategy, but the population data on which their program is based is out of touch with reality. The number they are projecting for 2025 will be passed in the next three months. They will need more projects than so far described.

Steps to accelerate housing construction were not mentioned in the 130-page PC platform document. The need is real and has been addressed. The intervention on municipal planning was necessary, if sometimes heavy-handed.

Fortunately there is alignment on the goal of achieving rapid population growth, and Halifax Mayor Mike Savage has been a force for good, expressing disagreement with some of the province’s tactics without shutting down the lines of communication.

A related problem is a spike in homelessness. The province has made several investments in new facilities and programs. Though nominally a provincial responsibility it has still been a burden for municipalities, especially HRM.

Day care was also not mentioned in the platform. Generous support from the federal government has enabled Nova Scotia and the other provinces to move toward $10-a-day care and improved compensation for early childhood educators.

The punitive non-resident property tax was never a good idea. To his credit the premier retreated with grace after receiving a barrage of input from the friends and relatives of the many seasonal residents.

Another bad platform idea was the “better paycheck guarantee”. It would allow employers to redirect their provincial income taxes to increases for employees. This is hugely inefficient.

Suppose a big bank is planning to give its employees in Nova Scotia, and the rest of Canada, a 4% increase at the beginning of 2023. They will be delighted to have the cost of a decision they would have made anyway deducted from their provincial taxes. More to the point, the challenge in Nova Scotia and elsewhere is jobs without people, not people without jobs. Employers are under a lot of pressure to increase wages.

It is entirely appropriate for government programs to deviate from election promises when unanticipated circumstances point in a different direction.

One need that is pervasive is fiscal responsibility. The most recent update predicts a deficit of $554 million, up $48 million from the March budget. That is in a time when there is very low unemployment and before the substantial cost of further health care expansion is felt. Areas of wasteful spending need to be addressed.

The government has been busy on many fronts. The next election is 32 months away. When the voters have their say neither health nor housing will be fully “fixed.”

The question is whether they will be satisfied with the pace of the response.

Thanks again to all readers and for your feedback, which as usual included plaudits and criticisms. Both are welcome. Have a great holiday.


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