2017-08-09

McNeil sets the agenda: An exclusive interview with the Nova Scotia Premier

by Charles Mandel

  • <p>Editor Charles Mandel sat down with Premier Stephen McNeil for an exclusive interview last week.</p>

In an exclusive interview with Lighthouse Now, Premier Stephen McNeil elaborated on some of the challenges facing his administration as he forges ahead with a second term.

Seemingly refreshed and feisty from his recent election win of the past spring, the Liberal leader sat down with LighthouseNow in Hubbards. The occasion marked the opening of fledgling MLA Hugh McKay's constituency office.

Several dozen party faithful attended the event, including Lunenburg MLA Suzanne Lohnes-Croft and Chester Councillor Abdella Assaff.

Given the heat and humidity, which went into the low 30s, people dressed casually for the event: summer dresses for the women, and slacks and polo shirts for the men.

While people milled about waiting for the MLA and the premier, who'd been delayed because of a car crash on the Peggy's Cove Road, they could avail themselves of bowls full of chips, cookies in plastic clamshell containers, and various sodas and waters cradled in a bucket of ice.

Through his responses to LighthouseNOW's questions, MacNeil made it clear the government's position on many policies were not only set, but being rolled out. At the same time the premier tried to emphasize that his government was moving on an agenda that the electorate had approved.

That assumption is debatable, given that in the most recent election the Liberals captured 27 seats in 2017, down from 33 in 2013.

While a victory for the Liberals, the slim margin suggested that the government doesn't have as much support for its agenda as it presumes.

But then dissent doesn't phase the premier. "I've yet to find a decision I've made that hasn't had opposition to it," McNeil laughed in response to a question over the recently announced pre-primary program.

Daycare operators and others had lamented the lack of public consultation over the pre-primary program, which kicks off in September, placing 1,200 children in 43 locations throughout the province.

McNeil said the Liberals already took the policy position to the people. "It was part of our platform. It's one of the parts of our platform that got overwhelming support. It was a public policy position that was taken."

The education minister has a mandate to bring in the program over the next four years across the province, the premier said.

He noted in some cases daycare operators will deliver the program, although that will be in urban areas most likely. "It's not a phenomena in many rural communities because - let's be frank - in many rural communities we have an issue where we have space in our schools, but in some of our urban centres we don't."

The premier said it will depend on the community and the capacity in their schools as to who delivers the program in some instances. He noted a number of pilot programs that early childhood educators led had already been delivered. "This is now expanding on that."

While McNeil seemed sympathetic on the growing issue of Lyme disease in Lunenburg County, a region that has been identified as one of the hot spots in the country for the tick-borne illness, he didn't have much to say about the potential of the county getting a Lyme Disease centre for testing for the illness.

"I certainly know the issue has had prominence in the province. We know this is the area where a lot of cases have been diagnosed. I can tell you the issue of Lyme disease has certainly been in the forefront and we know cases here in Lunenburg County have been high."

In terms of school closures, McNeil pointed out that the proposed Petite Riviere school closure is going before the court. "We'll watch that process.

"But clearly we're making decisions that we'll be using capacity in schools and making schools more vibrant, so we're hoping our boards will recognize that and take a pause to look at what does the pre-primary mean to those schools that are potentially now with space."

He noted that during the election campaign they had asked school boards to step back from the closure process. "We think boards need to wait before they close schools."

McNeil also addressed the controversial forestry review process over who will have the right to harvest on crown forestry lands. He said an announcement of who will lead the independent review will be made soon.

"When you have a look at the announcement of the person coming in, it will be an independent review and people will be happy with the person chosen, but it will be to do an analysis, how do we ensure we strike the right balance.

"Because ultimately what's happening is we need private wood lot owners to be able to get their product to the marketplace at fair price, a good price at the same time, using supply off crown land, making sure that we're doing it in a way that's sustainable for the long term and the health of the province."

Added McNeil: "Private woodlot owners have certainly raised concerns. We've heard them."

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