Metro talks with Liberal leader Stephen McNeil: From teachers to a possible minority government
This is the fourth in a series of sit-down interviews with the leaders of each political party in the provincial election.
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In an interview on Tuesday, Liberal leader Premier Stephen McNeil sat down with Metro to discuss campaign issues as part of a series leading up to the May 30 election.
The below Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
Metro: Why go for a second term and why now?
McNeil: Over the last three and a half years Nova Scotians have worked really hard with our government to put us back in a position of fiscal balance. We’re at a point now where we can make decisions as a government. It’s at a time for Nova Scotians to determine which vision of those decisions they want to make. Typically you’re three and a half, four years into a mandate before you go, we delivered our second back to back balanced budget, we’ve laid out what we want to do: pre-primary for all 4 year olds, investments in reducing the taxes for low and middle income Nova Scotians. Other parties have a different vision of where they want to go, so Nova Scotians will make that decision.
Metro: Is it fair to judge a government on one term?
McNeil: That’s up to the people, I’ll let them decide. I’m obviously looking for a second term. We’ve done a lot if you look at the restructuring of healthcare, putting investments back in the classrooms. We’ve obviously had some very difficult conversations with public sector unions around making sure that the growth and salaries and benefits reflect our ability to pay, at the same time we’re looking to invest in classrooms and health care. But ultimately that’s our electoral cycle, and the people will determine whether or not we get a second term.
Metro: You’re polling behind the party. Why do you think that is?
McNeil: I don’t think that’s uncommon in the country really, but obviously I’ve got a strong slate of candidates who have been doing very well in their own ridings, there’s no question about that. I’ve said one of the things that was missed on election night of 2013 wasn’t the majority, it was the quality of the majority. We are very proud of that, men and women who are running and they’re strong individuals and strong candidates, it made a great executive council and a great caucus. So I’m very proud Nova Scotians are recognizing the quality of the team.
Metro: Is it important for you though personally to be liked?
McNeil: If you’re looking to be liked this is the wrong job to be applying for. It’s personally important for me to do what I believe it right for all Nova Scotians. This may come as a surprise to you, but I have people who are outside of what I do for a living, who are part of my life; those are the people you need to be liked by, those are the people you need to love you. You need other people to respect you, not necessarily to like you, but you need people to respect you and the decisions that you make, and I think people have over the last three and a half years, whether they liked the decision I made, recognized that I made it because I believed it was in the best interest of all of us.
Metro: You have used very strong language in terms of language you used towards teachers during the strike, bringing up the bonuses they have in their life and they took a lot of offence to that. The film tax credit people took offence to some of the language you used: is that how you should be talking to your constituents?
McNeil: As the government of Nova Scotia you have to make decisions, you have to do it within the envelope that you have, and you have to make sure that when you make a decision what impact does it have then on everyone? All I asked across the entire public sector … was we need to slow down growth of salaries so that I could invest in pre-primary, because there’s families out there that that’ll save $10,000 who are in the middle class who it’ll make a difference for. I needed to be able to slow down the growth in the public sector so that I could actually have a tax cut for the lower and middle income Nova Scotians that’ll actually go back into families and allow them to pay their bills. We weren’t asking anyone to give anything else up. If you go back and actually look at the scenario, what we’re asking people is to slow down the growth, and that is the growth of those are that are doing well.
Metro: You hurt some feelings though within the teachers and the film community, is that fair to say?
McNeil: I think anytime a government makes a decision, not everyone’s happy with it. I think it’s important to recognize that. I have yet to find a government in Canada that has made decisions that everyone’s been happy with, and some people haven’t been affected in a negative way by. That’s the balance of governing, and that’s why I go back to my goal (which) when I came in was that I would govern so that everyone would be part of this conversation about how to we give everyone an opportunity to be lifted.
Metro: You’ve been criticized for not reacting swiftly to the controversial Judge Lenehan decision or expressing your opinion. Do you regret that?
McNeil: I do not associate myself with those comments at all from him at all, but you have to understand the judiciary is separate from the government. I don’t think anyone would like their premier to have the authority to make decisions for the judiciary. We’re very proud of our public policy, pieces we’ve made in and around sexual assault, in and around ensuring that more Nova Scotians saw themselves in our public institutions. But I think it’s very important, and that’s one of the challenges of being the premier, you have personal feelings that you feel about when people make comments, but you have to be very careful not to overstep. An independent judiciary is important, it’s the foundation of a democracy. I think that’s one of the challenges you face; what I feel personally about his comments and what I’m allowed to say as the premier sometimes are very different.
Metro: Given that and the re-hiring and continued defence around Kyley Harris, what would you say to the perception that some Nova Scotians feel you’re not taking victim’s concerns seriously?
McNeil:I think my actions would speak otherwise. I’ve just laid out what we’ve done in and around the bench, I’ve laid out what legislation we’ve done around sexual assault, the only government in the history of this province that’s brought in a sexual assault strategy. But having said all of that, Kyley Harris has gone through the court system, made a mistake, did restitution, accepted full responsibility for it, talked to organizations who are dealing with women who are victims of assault. They want to see people who have gone through the court system, accepted the responsibility and I think that’s an important part of that, not to be held down forever. But I understand the feelings that people were feeling, and Kyley has stepped away. My goal is for him to hopefully, as it is for all Nova Scotians, is to rebuild their lives and get back on their feet.
Metro: You mentioned bringing in the ability to change your gender marker on a birth certificate, but besides that what have you done for LGBTQ people and why should they vote for you?
McNeil: I think the appointment of the first LGBTQ member to the bench is a reflection of how I want all Nova Scotians to see themselves in our important institutions. I appointed the first openly gay member to the cabinet, Minister Bernard. Continuing to work and make sure that people see themselves in a reflection is to this community, to the African Nova Scotian community, one of the things that became loud and clear to me when I became premier.
Metro: How do you view the development in Halifax and what’s your vision for the downtown?
McNeil: I think the development that’s taken place has been positive for downtown, it’s been positive for the province. Across the harbour we bought COVE as a province because we see that as an incubation hub, not only for start-ups but a collaboration of ocean-tech companies where our goal is ultimately to have an ocean cluster. If you look at ensuring that we have some affordable housing in the area, and Minister Bernard’s been working hard with our landlords. We see HRM as the engine of the province, we’re trying to figure out how do we build off of that in some of our rural communities.
Metro: We hear a lot about voter apathy, especially youth engagement - are you concerned at all about lack of engagement? Also, student groups have expressed frustration the election was called for May 30 when most of them aren’t around.
McNeil: No matter when the election’s called it would impact people in different ways. That’s just the reality of our professions and our careers, and institutions that we’re all part of. We want more and more people engaged in the process, it’s critical that we do, and it goes back to where I think people need to see themselves in the process, we need to continue to work hard at that. There have been challenges related to that, particularly with younger voters. That’s why if you go back and look, some of our largest successes of government has been the fact that we’ve reduced youth unemployment, we’ve retained more young people per capita than any other Canadian province.
Metro: We’re dealing with huge outmigration of young people and high job losses for youth, how do you begin to tackle that?
McNeil: We’ve actually had the largest increase in our population, our population is at an all-time high, and part of that is not just aging people. That’s people coming into our province and people staying. I’ll go back to the Graduate to Opportunities program, where we have gone out and said ‘you hire a university or community college grad and we’ll pay 25 per cent of their first year salary, 12 per cent of the second year. If you hire underrepresented members of the community, we will actually increase that subsidy. If you look at the START program that we’ve just announced, 700 additional positions for apprentices. This thing has been eroding over a long period of time. We’re beginning to see the trend where we’re turning in the other direction, because ultimately what it is, is Nova Scotians want a job, and how do we attach that to an employer? Our co-op positions have also been important. We’ve laid out stuff now where we’ll be increasing those, we’re building on those successes.
Metro: How would you define your relationship with unions right now?
McNeil: Anytime you’re looking at negotiating on wages and benefits it’s always difficult for governments, but I’ve worked with unions on other aspects of it. That part of it, it’s obviously been challenging, it has been one that has been well documented. Other aspects of it, I worked with the NSGEU to ensure PTSD legislation on the table in the House. We worked on that to make sure that reflected who they were. I worked with the nurses’ union on workplace safety. That is the stuff that doesn’t get the flashy headline.
Metro: Both the PC’s and NDP have said they’d remove Bill 75 and start renegotiations with the NSTU. What are your thoughts on that?
McNeil: One of them has said they would actually give the same wage package I had given. The NDP have said we’re prepared to spend whatever we have to spend. I think that’s a direct choice for Nova Scotians, if they want to go down a road again where we just continue to spend without any future look. It’s a scary thought for the province, to be perfectly frank, how do you do it all? Would I like to give people more money? Of course I would. But there’s a responsibility to this position, and that is that we represent all people. And we also have to do it in a way that we’re not saying to the child born today, ‘You’re going to have this anchor.’ And that’s where we’re headed if we decide that we’re going to spend an extra billion dollars in debt. I’m not sure what the Conservatives actually had said, but the last three and half years they’ve been negative about everything. They’ve complained about that we’ve done, and yet they’re almost running on it. I’m not sure what (Baillie) stands for, that’s the challenge about that. At least I’ll give the NDP you at least know where they stand.
Metro: Quentrel Provo just talked about how he feels forgotten as an African Nova Scotian, and that his vote doesn’t matter in light of a coalition having to bring African Nova Scotian issues to the forefront. What would you say to someone who feels left out?
McNeil: First of all, every vote matters and it goes back to my original question when I became premier. There are too many people who don’t see themselves in the system. I’ve been in dealing with their candidate, our candidate, Melinda Daye, who I believe shares the same community. I’m very proud of the fact two African Nova Scotians, the most ever in the history of our province, were elected under our government with me as premier. Proud of the fact that I went in and worked with the Home for Coloured Children ... which I’ve said all along was racist and based in discrimination. We put together an inquiry to look at, not to lay blame, but how do we make sure this doesn’t happen, and second of all to have our institutions looked at through the eyes of a minority. And I go back to my appointments to the bench, it was important to me. We had some vacancies on the bench for a period of time, it wasn’t because I didn’t have people to fill them. I didn’t have the right people to fill them to reflect who we are today. And he’s absolutely right, he’s absolutely right on how what’s happened in this province, and we’re trying to move it in a direction where people are reflective in it. It is important to me that when I leave this office, whether it is after this election or at a future date, that people will say at least Stephen McNeil stood up and fought for those of us who had not been seen in these institutions before.
Metro: What happens if there’s minority government? For you would that be seen as a failure?
McNeil: That would be up to the voters. I’ve never questioned the voters of the province of Nova Scotia. I’ve lost elections, I’ve won elections, and I’ve always respected the voter at the end of the day, and I’ve always said this: when the voters make their decision, it is then up to the elected officials to figure out how to make it work.
Five fun facts: Stephen McNeil edition
Metro: Favourite food?
McNeil: I enjoy fast food, but at my age I’ve had to shift a little bit so that’s a treat these days. I prefer fish more than anything, and I’ve changed my fries to a salad.
Metro: Favourite movie?
McNeil: On Golden Pond. Katherine Hepburn and Jane Fonda. It’s a couple that is aging, and a relationship between a father and a daughter. His lack of understanding and how he evolved as a parent, which kind of turned him into a lovable character.
Metro: Favourite band/musician?
McNeil: I’m a Johnny Cash fan. I also enjoy Coldplay.
Metro: When did you last take the bus and where did you go?
McNeil: I’m not sure the last time I would’ve been on transit because I don’t live here. It would have been quite some time ago. I’m a rural member.
Metro: What’s your drink of choice after a long day?
McNeil: White wine. I prefer the Tidal Bay. As a rural kid I enjoy my beer as well. It would have been Keith’s, Olands, but the craft brewery in Nova Scotia … I’ve had a chance to visit a lot of them, and it’s amazing what they’re doing.