Stephen McNeil has seen a lot of changes around the table at First Ministers’ meetings since taking office in 2013. Now, as he looks ahead to working with a federal minority government that is preoccupied with national unity issues in Western Canada, the Nova Scotia premier remains optimistic about the province’s position.
He reflected on where the province stands in a wide-ranging year-end interview with Global News.
“I’ve always had a good relationship with the national government,” McNeil said.
After the October federal election, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made an effort to meet with the premiers individually, particularly the Conservative premiers from Western Canada where the federal Liberals were shut out in every riding.
McNeil met with Trudeau in early December.
“The leadership that we have shown on regulatory reform across the country, they recognize that. The work that we’re doing with our sister provinces here in Atlantic Canada around energy transmission and energy opportunities, the prime minister knows the roles that we have played in that,” McNeil said.
“And he also knows that I am a fiscal liberal with progressive social policies that we have put in place.”
One issue he’s raised with Ottawa is that of the province’s immigration cap. Similar-sized provinces like Saskatchewan have much higher caps under the provincial nominee program, and the premier says he believes Nova Scotia’s will be raised.
“We have demonstrated that we need more people. We have demonstrated that we know how to do immigration, bringing people in at an appropriate level that’s sustainable and we will continue to do so,” he said.
Closer to home, the McNeil government is in the midst of yet another public disagreement with the Nova Scotia Teachers Union. This time, the union is accusing government of ignoring an arbitrator’s ruling that orders it to reinstate some 60 school specialists as union members. The province claims the arbitration award is “not in the best interests of students and their families.”
It’s already become clear this will result in the two sides arguing their case before the Supreme Court.
This is all part of McNeil’s attempt to reform education in the province, a process that has put his government at odds with the union several times. And it comes at a time when the union is in the midst of negotiations on its new contract. The last round of contract negotiations led to a protracted dispute and the union’s first one-day strike.
The premier pointed to recently signed deals with doctors and Crown prosecutors when asked whether his government has achieved a change in tone promised after that dispute and the 2017 election.
“You’re always in a position, when you’re in labour negotiations, that you’re going to have differences of opinion,” he said. “My job is to represent all Nova Scotians, not just those who sit at the bargaining table.”
Looking ahead to 2020, there will be a byelection in the riding of Truro-Bible Hill-Millbrook-Salmon River, where Lenore Zann resigned in order to run for the federal Liberals. The premier wouldn’t hint at when that will come.
“There’s no strategic advantage of doing it. We’ll do it in the new year, there’s a time frame to call it,” he said. “I typically like to call them, if you go back and look at my record, usually within the 100-day mark after someone has stepped down.”
McNeil was far from definite about when the rest of Nova Scotians will be heading to the polls next. Nova Scotia is the only province without fixed election dates.
“I haven’t put my head around calling an election campaign,” McNeil said.
“I’m preparing our party for a campaign but I certainly don’t see one in 2020, and if it is, it will be later in the year.”
The chief electoral officer recently warned that his office doesn’t have enough money to be ready for an election until April 2021, but the province has assured the officer the next election will be fully funded.
Editor’s Note: This interview was done on Dec. 18, two days before the government made the announcement that it would enforce the Boat Harbour Act. The Premier’s Office declined to reschedule it to after the announcement was made.