2019-01-02

Provincial PC Leader pans government on schools, aquaculture, ferry

by Gayle Wilson

  • <p>GAYLE WILSON PHOTO</p><p>PC Leader Tim Houston met served up his thoughts on a number of issues to <em> </em>LighthouseNOW at a popular caf&#0233; in Bridgewater December 18.</p>

The leader of Nova Scotia's PC Party, Tim Houston, says he would not have dissolved the province's school boards had he been premier at the time of the decision.

"I don't think that was the answer to the issues in the education system," Houston, the MLA for Pictou East, told LighthouseNOW in a year-end interview in Bridgewater December 18.

"The answer to improving the education system lies right in the classroom. And I don't think that doing away with the school boards has allowed any more focus on the classroom and on the children in the classroom," he said.

In March, Nova Scotia's Department of Education replaced all seven of its elected English-language school boards with one provincial advisory council made up of people appointed by the minister.

The move followed the release in January of a scathing provincially funded-report which condemned the province's school system.

"If I was premier today, I wouldn't have made that decision," commented Houston.

"The issue is we need more supports in the classroom. We have to make sure that every child in the classroom has access to the supports they need, whether that's the children kind of at the high end, the high achievers or whatever, or whether that's the [child] that just needs a bit more time with the concept.

"Teachers are too stretched. They don't have time to get those kids, right? So we need to find a way to support the teachers to get to the children."

Nonetheless Houston is not prepared to say he would automatically reverse the decision if elected premier.

"Let's see how it evolves, but I'm not convinced, based on what I see today, that that's going to lead to a big improvement in our education."

Over an informal conversation at Fancy Pants Cafe in Bridgewater, the premier hopeful also addressed the controversy over Cooke Aquaculture's expansion plans in Liverpool Bay.

The company presented its plans to the Region of Queens Municipality council and the South Queens Chamber of Commerce on October 23.

On November 26, a rally organized by the recently formed Protect Liverpool Bay group at Fort Point Lighthouse drew about 100 supporters.

Houston maintains that the government review process concerning such industry applications isn't thorough enough and doesn't allow for the input from the community to be taken seriously.

"There has to be a real process that people can respect, and know that their voices and perspectives will be heard, and understood, and analyzed in that process."

"You have to listen to the community when they're concerned, on land or in the sea. They know the area," said Houston, adding that he didn't think the community felt like that was happening.

Houston was also critical of the provincial government's handling of its deal with Bay Ferries Limited, the operator of the high-speed catamaran ferry between Yarmouth and Maine.

The PC Caucus submitted a Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy (FOIPOP) request about the management fees the government agreed to pay for the company more than two years ago.

On December 18, FOIPOP Commissioner Catherine Tully finally released her report recommending that "the Department [of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal] disclose the withheld information in full."

"Taxpayer dollars pay the management fee and taxpayers deserve to know how their money is being spent," Houston was quoted saying in a press release.

While Houston told LighthouseNOW the ferry is an important link that impacts tourism, he questioned, "Is that investment that the province is making giving getting the most bang for the buck, or are there other ways that we can simulate economic development and stimulate tourism?"

He disagrees with the type of vessel being used.

"It's not the right boat. If we're going to put a ferry there we need to be able to transport goods. It has to take trucks," he insisted.

While acknowledging that tourism is an economic driver, he suggested a government under him would not likely offer a lot of direct support to the province's traditional hospitality and transportation industries, which are feeling the impact of the parallel market serviced by such companies as Airbnb and Uber.

According to a recent report by the CBC, more than 3,800 Airbnb hosts charged nearly $58 million for their accommodations in Nova Scotia in the last year.

"I do sympathize with operators who have been in business for a long time and have establishments and have processes and have structures," said Houston.

He maintained there still is a role for such businesses, and perhaps the government could look to other jurisdictions to see how they are handling the rise of this alternate industry.

"But what I would say to them is be prepared to adapt to a changing role," said Houston.

"The travel consumer is changing ... and businesses need to adapt.

"Airbnb, Uber. They're the future. There's nothing anyone in Nova Scotia is going to do to stop the internet.

"It's happening. It's coming. So we might as well embrace it and use it to the benefit of our province."

Moreover, he suggested whereas government stepped in previously to ensure accommodations followed certain standards, to a degree social media holds business owners accountable as well.

"If you stay in an Airbnb tonight, you can go on the Internet and tell the whole world tomorrow about your experience. Those inspections are happening in the realest of time."

Houston noted technology and innovation are not just impacting the hospitality industry.

He said he was "excited" by the fact the Nova Scotia.government has put aside "pots of money" to develop and improve internet service in rural areas.

"It has potential to do a lot of good, if it's invested properly."

Nonetheless, the PC Leader suggested he was "a little concerned about the structure of the fund.

"I always thought it was weird that they just took the Waterfront Development Corporation and renamed it. It's probably a little more complicated than that."

However, the PC Leader said he was prepared to reserve judgment, "until we see how that actually rolls out."

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