Monday, December 6, 2010

Nova Scotia's NDP government at 18 months

By Ralph Surette
December 6, 2010

The NDP government, you may have noticed, is suddenly a hive of activity. At 18 months, with its many studies and policy processes maturing, it's making the stands that will mark its mandate. Some of its moves are more successful than others.

On the positive side, the long and bitter forest policy debate seems, remarkably, to be coming to an adequate conclusion. Clearcutting is to be reduced by half within five years, among other things. Environmentalists are happy. The industry not so much, but it seems willing to give it a go. If it holds -- there are still many ifs -- this is big. Not just for forestry, but as a demonstration that bitter division can be overcome and some things can be made to work in Nova Scotia. For the longest time, we doubted that.

Then there's the five-year highways plan, a first. It lays out priorities based on need for repair of highways and bridges, with a mechanism for continuous public input. Although basing this work on need seems obvious, it's taken some 250 years to come to that simple conclusion. It used to be all about politics -- including firing all the highways workers and foremen whenever the government changed, the most visible sign of our embarrassing political culture. Maybe you can't entirely remove political pressure, but at least we're formally out of hillbilly country on that one. Score one there.

Not so good on energy. The premier has been making grand announcements -- the undersea cable link to Newfoundland, tidal power, big wind farms, and upgraded power lines to the U.S. to export the surplus. On the Newfoundland link, which Nova Scotia Power would finance for $1.2 billion, the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council has said whoa, let's crunch some numbers here before we applaud. If you've been around a while, the idea of Nova Scotia as a power exporter will sound suspiciously old and unconvincing -- 30 to 40 years ago, the big plan was to have a plethora of big coal plants and, yes, tidal power and wheel it to the U.S. Tidal power is still problematic. Even if it's ever made to work, which I doubt, it's part-time power. Wind power even more so.

Meanwhile, I find myself twiddling my thumbs with increasing impatience waiting for Efficiency Nova Scotia, the energy conservation agency, to be set up. The worldwide experts I tend to believe say this: In the future, the only solution will be to use less energy. Along with those real substitutes for grid electricity -- solar, geothemal, waste heat reclamation, even natural gas which is in a policy muddle in Nova Scotia -- conservation is what we have to be getting at faster than we are. Government is being annoyingly slow, if it's getting there at all.

And, in passing, both the Energy Department and Transportation and Infrastructure have the same minister, Bill Estabrooks, who has also been bogged down by the convention centre issue. This is too much for one guy, especially one who has announced he has health problems that stress won't help. I say this thinking of the residents of Ingramport who are fighting a connector road that will destroy homes, although three other potential routes are available, and who have the support of even their local NDP MLA. But they can't get the time of day from Estabrooks. Is this because he's overwhelmed? Give this guy some relief, Mr. Premier, whether he wants it or not.

On the really big one, health care, we've at least reached the point of clarity with the report on emergency care by Dr. John Ross. The question now: Can the system respond to the challenge? A lot of the NDP's final mark will be on that.

And here's another biggie that the NDP is apparently gearing up to tackle -- education, the second costliest department after health and perhaps just as dysfunctional. Education is in fact more complex than health. But after hearing stories about waste and extravagance for decades, not to mention the expense of school construction, P3 and otherwise, I'd say there's much there to be made more efficient. In fact, I'd like to see someone do to education what Ross has just done for health: explain how it works and doesn't work and what to do about it. It would take an insider who already knows a lot, but a maverick with no fear of either bureaucrats or unions, to do it.

And Premier Dexter has announced an economic policy that caught some attention. An important feature will be that the Industrial Expansion Fund, that pile of cabinet money for pet projects the NDP had indeed promised to eradicate, will pay for most of it. The elements are job training, less red tape for business, immigrant skills, productivity investment, etc. -- the usual components of such policies, but with success depending on the application. Dexter is particularly passionate on the subject of our growing skills shortages and aging population. Something to watch.

There have also been measures in social policy amounting to $72 million -- $50 million to advance affordable housing, plus adult learning initiatives, more child care subsidies, tweaking the various support systems to create incentive and iron out irrational penalties, and others. What's slowly cooking there, despite tight budgets?

On the whole, not bad. At least a lot better than before, but with the really big challenges yet to come.

Ralph Surette is a veteran freelance journalist living in Yarmouth County. This article was originally published in The Chronicle Herald.

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