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The Cape Breton Post recently discussed the challenges facing Nova Scotia with Premier Stephen McNeil. The Liberal party leader was asked about his government’s response to child poverty, island autonomy, population changes, and whether or not he plans to run in the next election.
McNeil confirmed he will indeed be seeking a third-term as premier.
Q: The recent statistics for child poverty are quite disheartening. Nova Scotia has the third-highest child poverty rate in Canada and was the only province to increase its rates between 2015-17. Why do you feel these numbers are rising and what does your government plan to do about it?
A: As you know the issue of child poverty is complex — there’s many facets to it. Very early on, the very first thing we did was adjust the basic personal exemption so low-income Nova Scotians would keep more of their tax dollars to be able to address the very issue that you’re referring to. Same thing when it came to affordable housing . . .We know that there’s more work for us to do. That’s why this coming budget we will really be looking at affordability with a real focus on children. We invested in pre-primary and we believe that is a long-term goal that will change the dial on, and (lift children) who are currently in poverty out of poverty, but that will take 15-20 years to see the result of that. I think it will be the biggest benefit to the province in the long-term. The fact that we’re giving every child — regardless of the socio-economic circumstances they’re born into — a real start, an even start, at four years old. What we’ll do in this budget is address the immediate need that we’re hearing from communities across the province.
Q: Were you surprised by the numbers?
A: We thought we would see more results from the policy positions we had implemented early on.
Q: Doctors and staff at the Cape Breton Regional Hospital describe the current ER situation as chaotic and unmanageable. The province has a plan for expansion, but what is being done in the interim?
A: We’ve heard loud and clear, really from the very first time in 2013 — the stresses that were being put on the regional hospital and many of our rural hospitals. The most recent agreement that we have with Doctors Nova Scotia was to address some of the issues in terms of keeping the outpatients and emergency rooms open in our rural hospitals, so for example like Glace Bay. We’ve seen that now that service is being provided, which we hope will take pressure off those who are requiring those services late at night instead of going to the regional.
Any time you’re making a change in health care it’s easier to feel the fear of it quite honestly, as opposed to (embracing) the opportunity to help reshape the delivery model for the next 50 years.
Q: Is your government still working to reduce red tape for doctors in Nova Scotia?
A: We’ve been working with our sister provinces in Atlantic Canada to do an Atlantic model. It’s my personal view there should be one registry in Canada.
We want a health-care team to be mobile, if a physician wants to go from Nova Scotia to Ontario to cover a shift for the weekend, they should have the ability to do that. On (the flip side) we believe we can attract more to come to Nova Scotia if we could get rid of some of that red tape that’s there, but the government can’t do that alone. It will require the colleges to step up and realize that the foundation and the genesis of the colleges back in the 60s was one thing. They need be modernized and reflect today’s realty.
Q: Have you ever considered spending a day at the ER in Sydney to see what staff are facing?
A: I’m in and out of hospitals across the province sometimes as the premier, and sometimes as a patient, so we have a good handle on what’s happening. The reality of it is there’s no magic solution.
CENTRAL LIBRARY NEED
Q: Sydney’s library is nearly 60 years old and outdated. A decade has passed since a committee was launched with a goal toward establishing a new central library. Is there a plan or action needed by your government to achieve this goal?
A: First of all, these are municipal priorities. But we’re spending a half a billion dollars as you and I are sitting here around health-care redevelopment in the greater CBRM (Cape Breton Regional Municipality). We’re moving the college downtown, which is about a $150-million project by the time we’re finished. These projects are important infrastructure projects for our region. We want to see those commitments fulfilled as we move forward. We’re working with CBRM now to deal with some of the issues around water and sewer, which are their priorities, and the minister has been down a number of times. I’ve met with the mayor and CAO as well — those are the kind of projects that we’re hearing from that are at the top of mind in communities.
POPULATION AND UNEMPLOYMENT
Q: The province is reporting a positive outlook on employment and population growth. However, that’s not the case in the CBRM. What is the province doing to spread this trend across the province?
A: Ten of our 18 counties have actually grown. I think what you’re seeing here at CBU is amazing with the work that president (David) Dingwall has done with his team to bringing new students here from India. I was pleasantly surprised to see some of them opening businesses, which is a positive thing. We need to continue to do more of that. When you’re getting a call from CBRM because they need more buses because there’s a growth in the population, those are good problems. We need to continue to build on what CBU has been doing. Investing in the second berth is attracting more tourists to come to the area. We’ll be able to host two cruise ships at the same time, which means we’ll get more investment downtown, more businesses open. Those are the kinds of things that we’ll attract. It will be the private sector who sees an opportunity to create a life for themselves and a job for our children that will help reshape and repatriate all of our sons and daughters back home.
NEW PATH FOR ISLAND
Q: Cape Bretoners are showing interest in the concept of regional autonomy, including a push by Senator Dan Christmas. Members of CBRM council are also writing your government for answers whether they received a bad deal at amalgamation. What are your thoughts on the matter?
A: We have a good relationship with the mayor and the council. To me it does no good to continue to look backwards. What are the challenges that we face and the opportunities that we face and how do we work together to move the agenda forward?
As far as separation we should just stop that conversation, it needs all of us to recognize the province is stronger together. There are challenges in parts of our communities, not just here in CBRM and other parts of the province, but the idea of a separation or complaining because someone else is doing well hasn’t worked for us.
Q: Three of Nova Scotia Power’s large coal-fired plants are located in Cape Breton. What is the government’s expected timeline for shutting those down or at least converting them to a more environmentally friendly fuel source?
A: The utility is on the move to do that now. We created with the national government equalization for us an equivalency program that allows us to have an orderly shutdown of those coal-fired plants without it impacting power rates in the long run. By 2030 by and large we will be off coal, we have an extension to go beyond that on some of the colder days of the year. The connection between Newfoundland and Labrador is an encouraging one for us . . . It is my belief that if we can strength the transmission system we will see innovation happening in communities to create renewable energy opportunities.
Q: Are there any plans in place to help transition those workforces as you near that 2030 target date?
A: We’re seeing some of that. The utility for example is transitioning some of its own workforce to the other side as they start bringing renewable energy on. Efficiency Nova Scotia, which is a Crown corporation that provides green jobs, really, provides individual Nova Scotians and communities the ability to reduce their own footprint. We’re seeing between 1,500 and 2,000 jobs being generated but most of those are being generated by the private sector.
Q: Cape Breton Centre MLA Tammy Martin’s resignation is effective Feb. 6. Can we expect a byelection soon after?
A: I’ll wait for her final day and then I’ll make a decision on the byelection.
Q: Will you consider opening up cannabis retail to the private sector?
A: We did some research early on, we went actually to different parts of the U.S. at the start of this and one of things they told us was to actually hold very tight to distribution and gradually let it out.
We’re now looking at OK-ing what is the next phase of this distribution. We’ll see those sites for example that are growing the product, will have the ability to sell it from that site. We’re moving toward those. And then we’re looking — are there more of our own stores that we would open? Or do we go to some of our agency stores that we provide them with the opportunity to sell that product. There’s a lot of learning happening.
Q: Your government will soon be entering the fourth year of its mandate. When you do anticipate going to the polls again?
A: I haven’t put my head around when a general election will be called but I think people are safe for the summer.
Q: Will you be running again?
A: My intention is to seek a third term as premier, I’ll continue to work. We worked very hard over the last number of years as we governed to prepare the party for a general election whenever one may be called.