Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston sat down for a 10-minute talk about health care, housing and Nova Scotia Power in a year-end interview with Global Halifax last week.
Note to readers: The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
CALLUM SMITH: I wanted to start with you seemingly putting your stamp on health care with a sweeping plan for new or renovated facilities in the HRM. You appeared frustrated when reporters were asking for a cost to this massive plan to help monitor accountability. You instead stated the question that should be asked is how soon can we get health care fixed in this province? So let me pose that question to you. With this plan going into 2037 and beyond, when do you think health care can actually be fixed in this province?
TIM HOUSTON: Health care is our No. 1 priority. It was the No. 1 priority in the campaign and remains to be our No. 1 priority today. It’s a national issue now, too. People see that in every day and in every way, really. So, we’re focused on health care. It’s easy to get impatient. There’s no question about that. But I just ask Nova Scotians to have trust in the health leadership team and the amazing work that’s being done. I was always honest that it would take money and it would take time and it would probably get a little bit worse before it got better. And those things are all coming true. But there’s good things happening in health care. And I think we’ll really start to see that in 2023 and certainly beyond.
In terms of the health-care infrastructure, we all know that we need to make investments in health-care infrastructure. So we inherited a plan and that plan essentially was based on a few assumptions that are just not relevant anymore. Number one, it was actually based on a population decrease. And that is not the story of Nova Scotia now. We are growing at an incredible pace. So there was other factors.
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But what really kind of was pushing me on this was time. We need to do this quicker. We need it quicker and we need more. So the initial plan really wouldn’t have seen any substantial change for 10 years, and it was really only after that 10 years that they would start to look at emergency rooms and some of the other things. So with the plan that we announced we took what didn’t work and kind of finessed it. And the health-care professionals leading the way on that really stepped up. And I think we had some encouraging words for Nova Scotians on this. But now we’re talking about not 10 years, but five years to see substantial progress in five years.
In terms of the price, of course, we’re going to do it in waves and we’re not just having one massive build. We’re going to do it in a number of waves. Wave one, wave two, wave three, wave four. So as those additional waves come forward, we’ll put them out to tender. The market conditions will be different at that time. Hopefully, the labour force will have stabilized. We have big labour shortages right now, particularly in construction, but other industries as well. Hopefully inflation will calm down. Hopefully the supply chain will be a little bit more stable. So I think we can do it more efficiently and more effectively. But really, the main thing that Nova Scotians ask me is: do it quicker. And that’s why we put it on the table. So I’m proud of that.
CS: Premier, do you have any estimates — appreciating that things will change as time goes on?
TH: This is billions of dollars, like, there’s no question the initial (cost) was a couple billion. That escalated to, I think, close to maybe in the range of $3 billion. But … I’m not looking to do anything cheap. This isn’t about how can we do it cheaper. This is about how can we do it better. How can we do it quicker. And that’s the focus of Nova Scotians. They know it’s going to cost money. It’s going to cost a lot of money, there’s no question about that. But these are generational investments and we have to get it right. And I think the response we’re hearing from Nova Scotians and health-care professionals who are reaching out to me is that this is getting it right. It’s certainly much better than what was on the table before, and we can get it done a lot quicker, which is really what matters when we have health-care workers working in, really, kind of unacceptable conditions. So, we need to address that quickly.
CS: Are you OK with the state of health care right now?
TH: No, it’s not good enough for me. It’s not good enough for Nova Scotians. That’s why we have a real sense of urgency. And I think if you look at the Need a Family Practice registry it’s growing for sure. There’s a number of reasons for that. Our population is growing. Health-care workers are working differently. We have an aging health-care (workforce) just like our other rest of our population. So they’re retiring.
That’s why we’ve offered virtual care to everyone on that list as the pilot. We’ll expand that pilot now. But hundreds of people every single day are getting what they need. Virtual care is not for everything, of course, but it is for a lot of things. I think when you look at some of the clinic structures around the province that we’re opening up in conjunction with some of the pharmacies, the Mobile Health Care Clinic — great, great reviews on that. There’s a great team working on health care and really, what we’ve said and the relationship we’re trying to establish with health-care workers, if you have a good idea, tell us. If we can do it, we’ll do it.
CS: On housing, what’s your commitment to address a tightened market with climbing rents in Halifax and Nova Scotia?
TH: Yeah, so the rent cap is in place for another year. There’s lots of issues around the rent cap, too, so we have to think long-term on what we do there. But there’s no question that the solution to a housing crisis is more housing. We need to build more housing. And you quote a number of experts, but there’s also a number of experts who talk about naturally occurring affordable housing. That’s something called NOAH, naturally occurring affordable housing. So when you build more housing, that brings the prices down. More supply in the market brings the prices down. I believe in that. But I also want affordable housing.
Very specifically, I’m in Pictou County today. I remember being on site for the opening of Coady’s Place there. That’s an initiative, a partnership with the province, so we invested in that, the federal government and community organizations. That’s a tangible example of investment in affordable housing. Just last week, we announced almost $20 million for investments in affordable housing. So, look, we’re tackling the issues as we see it.
So, investments in affordable housing, but really investments in making sure that houses can get built. That means we need more people working in the workforce. That’s why we have the MOST program (More Opportunity for Skilled Trades), where anyone working in a skilled trade in this province under the age of 30 doesn’t pay any personal provincial income tax on their first $50,000. That’s an innovative program to address what we need in the labour force.
And we also won’t allow municipalities to put hurdles or perceived hurdles in place that slow down the construction. So, we’re trying to work with the municipalities and we have great municipal partners across the province.
CS: You’ve made it clear that your government’s priority is to protect (Nova Scotia Power) ratepayers. How far will you take this battle with Nova Scotia Power? And when you look into the future, do you think a public utility would be a better option or do you see the status quo with a private company remaining?
TH: Nova Scotians want to have a strong utility that they can be proud of, a strong utility that provides reliable power and does it at a fair price. And I think that’s possible. My focus has been on reliability. My focus has been on fairness of rates. So we’ll continue to be focused on those things and we’ll do whatever it takes, to answer your question, to make sure that the rates are fair for Nova Scotians and they have access to reliable power.
So, right now Nova Scotia Power is there. We’re willing to work with them in any way, shape or form. We want to have a positive relationship with them, but that positive relationship has to be built around reliable energy at a fair price. And that’s where our focus will always be, as are our obligations to the ratepayers.