Can Houston do it?

Tim Houston. Photo: Bruce Murray/Visionfire

Looking ahead to 2022, the premier is promising Nova Scotia a lot — can he deliver? 

At the end of his first 100 days in office, Premier Tim Houston has been hearing a lot about Nova Scotia’s challenges and inequities. 

“I feel an incredible sense of urgency to respond to the challenges, so I do think we’re moving very fast,” he says. “I know that if we move fast, sometimes you make mistakes. That’s the kind of thing you have to balance, but when we make those mistakes, we have to have the confidence to say, ‘That was a mistake; we have to fix that’ … Sometimes, if you find it hard to admit you don’t know something, it’s not the right role for you because this is a role where you have to be humble a lot.” 

Houston believes the pandemic has taught governments a lot about the need to be nimble and willing to change. 

“When you know better, you do better, and I think it should be the motto of our government,” he says. “We’ve seen pretty significant moves in housing and health care. I think these moves in the fullness of time will prove to have served Nova Scotians very well, so sometimes you have to stop and study and reflect and sometimes you got to act.” 

Health-care reform was the centrepiece of Houston’s electoral platform. One of his first acts as premier was to head out on a provincial tour to talk with frontline health-care workers. 

“The health-care file is so big, so complex, and the issues are so significant,” he says. “We just sat down with health-care workers from one end of the province to the other and just looked them in the eye and heard their stories. I will tell you that after that tour, I’m more and more focused on supporting them and fixing health care.” 

That tour has sharpened his focus on recruiting and retaining health-care workers, but also highlighted some immediate steps, such as the recent announcement in Cape Breton about opening an urgent treatment care centre to take some pressure off emergency rooms and a new transfer system for ambulances. 

But Houston asks for patience. 

“There’s no one solution, so there’ll be a number of things that will take a bit longer,” he says. “I want Nova Scotians to know that we’re very focused. I know in some communities, including my own (Pictou County), to be honest, things are getting worse. The momentum is all going the wrong way. The system’s been deteriorating for over eight years, so we have to take steps to stop this train from moving.” 

Houston said little about the housing crisis during the campaign, but it’s rocketed to the top of his priority list since he took office. He continues to preach development as the long-term solution, but recently released a plan promising short-term relief, including a two-year cap on rent increases (for existing leases) and the construction of new NSCC residences in Halifax, Dartmouth, and Pictou County. 

“That will increase housing stock in the short term,” Houston says. “If (students) can’t live with their parents … they’re absorbing housing units that are on the market, so if we can add to the stock specifically for them, that’s going to open up stock too.” 

He also intends to work with HRM on a transportation task force. “You have to be able to move around; you can’t live somewhere if you can’t get to your work or school or whatever,” he says. 

Houston has been open about his personal opposition to rent caps, but says the one he’s enshrined until 2023 was necessary. 

“We have to protect tenants,” he explains. “It became obvious to me that it’s not the fault of the tenants or the renters of this province that we are where we are. It’s the failures of governments, and they shouldn’t be made to pay the price for that.”

He’s not willing to cap rents on new leases, though.

“It’s in place … so that people don’t get forced to move,” he says. “Those that choose to move, that’s a different story.”

White men have dominated Nova Scotia’s government for the province’s entire history. Despite some early missteps (read on), Houston feels he’s progressing to a more inclusive government, pointing to the composition of his cabinet, which features more women than any previous provincial government. 

“Certainly across the bureaucracy, diversity — listening to, making sure that every Nova Scotian knows that their voice matters, that their voice will be respected and that their perspective they’re bringing to the table will be respected — is incredibly important,” he says. “My personal commitment is to continue to work at that and to be better.”

He’s responding to the intense criticism he made after naming a white man, Pat Dunn, minister of African Nova Scotia Affairs. At the time, he defended the choice, saying he had few options because voters didn’t elect any Black PC MLAs. (Clarification: A person doesn’t need to be an MLA, or even a member of the governing party, to be named to cabinet.) He continues to defend his choice, but recently met with a group of community stakeholders and attempted to assuage concerns by naming prominent Black educator Dwayne Provo as an associate deputy minister in the department. 

Another recent stumble was saying that people who work for minimum wage don’t have “real jobs.” He says he misspoke in the heat of a Province House debate, and has apologized again. 

“We continue to work to make sure that we rebuild those relationships that may have been damaged, but above it all is that the government of this province cares about people,” Houston says. “They understand that everyone brings a different perspective to the table, and that perspective is to be respected.”

Along those lines, he says he also wants to dial down the partisanship at Province House. Since taking office, he’s invited the other party leaders to meetings with public health officials, and with federal politicians to discuss green energy. 

“Opposition parties are doing their best to hold us to account,” he says. “(That tension is) always going to exist, but I think we’re taking as many steps that are possible to make sure that the opposition feels that this is a fair place.”

He points to the Public Accounts Committee. It used to sit many times throughout the year, calling witnesses and scrutinizing government policy. When Stephen McNeil was the Liberal premier, he neutered it, reducing it to monthly meetings without witnesses, which could only deal with reports from the auditor general. Houston is restoring its more rigorous function. 

And over everything, the pandemic looms — one day the end seems in sight, the next people are talking about living with COVID indefinitely. Houston believes the end is closer than most people realize, and that presents opportunities for Nova Scotia. 

“Nova Scotia got on the radar of a lot of people,” he says. “People want to move here, business owners that are saying maybe that’s a good place to establish because we had continuity … so I’m excited about the future of this province. I know that the potential of the economy will only ever be realized when we deliver on health care, housing, education — so my confidence in the economic recovery allows me to spend more time focused on doing what government should be doing.”

While COVID’s stubbornness is discouraging, Houston gives Nova Scotians high marks for how they’ve carried on. For 2022, he wants to give the province a more “normal” year. 

“At some point in the year, (pandemic restrictions) should be gone, so I would say a return to more normal will be a good thing. With a return to more normal work, we’re pretty excited about the prospects of growing the population of this province and, therefore, growing the economy of this province. I would hope Nova Scotians would share any optimism that I feel.” 

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