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N.S. premier admits to ‘level of frustration,’ decries tone of online critics

Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil delivers his state of the province address to the Chamber of Commerce in Halifax on Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015 .
Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil delivers his state of the province address to the Chamber of Commerce in Halifax on Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015 . Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

After more than three years in office, Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil says he still loves his job. But he also admits to some frustration as he deals with day-to-day problems, and the often personal and sometimes abusive tone of some public criticism directed his way.

READ MORE: Nova Scotia’s top 5 political influences of 2016

McNeil, who could call an election in 2017, recently reflected on a past year marked by public sector labour strife and several policy setbacks for his Liberal government.

“There is a level of frustration at times,” McNeil said in a year-end interview with The Canadian Press.

He acknowledged that frustration sometimes strained his relations with the press, including one scrum in which he snapped at a reporter asking about the province’s negotiations with Ottawa over carbon emissions.

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READ MORE: Premier Stephen McNeil snaps at Global News reporter when asked about carbon pricing

“Some days are better than others and there is a lot on my plate, but that’s no excuse … we all need to be mindful and respectful of the people we engage with every day, and I try to continue to improve on that.”

WATCH: Premier Stephen McNeil went on the offensive when Global News’ Marieke Walsh questioned him on the province’s carbon pricing plans

Click to play video: 'Stephen McNeil responds to Global News questions on carbon pricing' Stephen McNeil responds to Global News questions on carbon pricing
Stephen McNeil responds to Global News questions on carbon pricing – Oct 14, 2016

McNeil was asked about the cyber abuse highlighted recently by several Canadian women politicians, including Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, Newfoundland and Labrador Finance Minister Cathy Bennett, and his own community services minister, Joanne Bernard.

All have said they have endured online attacks ranging from outright threats to explicit comments about their appearance and sexuality.

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McNeil said public criticism is part of a politician’s job description, but some of it goes over the line. In a personal example, McNeil said someone recently likened him to Adolf Hitler in an online post about the ongoing teachers contract dispute.

He said what often happens in cyberspace, “certainly doesn’t move the debate along in any way.”

“I think it’s time people stepped back and realize that not only does it have an impact on me, but I have two children who are young adults now who this has an impact on,” he said. “Some of the very people on there (online) saying the stuff they say, would never say it to someone directly.”

McNeil noted that many adults are engaged in the very behaviour the province’s anti-cyberbullying law had tried to prevent, mostly amongst younger people and teens.

The pioneering law was struck down as unconstitutional by the Nova Scotia Supreme Court in December 2015. The province is currently drafting a new law expected to be tabled sometime in 2017.

McNeil said while his own experiences pale by comparison, he’s convinced something needs to be done about bullying in general.

“I’ll tell you what it gives me an appreciation for: the young person who can’t escape from it,” he said.

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Provincial exports at ‘all-time high’

On the policy front, McNeil pointed to some progress in 2016 in growing the province’s population, and increasing the numbers of immigrants and younger people who are calling Nova Scotia home. He said exports were “at an all-time high” and there is something to build off economically.

The province finished 2016 reporting a razor-thin $12.1 million surplus.

RED MORE: Nova Scotia government still counting on savings from rejected union contracts

However, the province’s stagnant economy continues to struggle, slowed by growth in manufacturing, international exports and the housing market, according to the Finance Department’s latest fiscal update.

Some higher-profile setbacks also tended to dominate headlines for the Liberals, including the government’s abrupt shelving of a plan that would have tripled pharmacare premiums for some seniors.

Other 2016 irritants included the withdrawal of a legal argument that implied the Mi’kmaq are a conquered people in the Alton Gas appeal, and the delay of legislation meant to make the province more accessible for the disabled, after heavy criticism from many of those the bill was supposed to help.

Through it all were the simmering contract impasses with more than 9,000 public school teachers and 7,000 provincial civil servants. Talks are ongoing with both unions, although the teachers have implemented a work-to-rule job action.

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READ MORE: Nova Scotia Teachers Union remains in conciliation with government

McNeil said if there was one decision he could take back it would be the pharmacare changes that would have seen the maximum premium for couples and individual seniors raised from $424 to $1,200. The rollout of the changes prompted the Nova Scotia Health Coalition to call information from the Health Department “incoherent.”

“We didn’t understand that we were creating a problem for a certain group of seniors, we acknowledged that,” McNeil said. “I certainly would communicate some of my decisions differently than we have.”

With expectations high Nova Scotians will go to the polls in 2017, McNeil wouldn’t say whether he plans to drop the writ in the coming year.

READ MORE: Stephen McNeil’s approval rating drops following Nova Scotia school closures

“We’re heading into our fourth year (as of October), and typically in Canada that’s when elections would happen,” he said.

“But we are focused right now on building a budget for the spring and delivering a budget.”

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