“You don’t get to be premier forever”

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Diana Whalen may have lost her role as finance minister over the handling of the Nova Scotia film tax credit and the Liberals saw their public image shade into villain territory, but Premier Stephen McNeil insists that if you look at it from a crane shot, you’ll see he made the right edits to the province’s finances.

But he admits they lost the public-relations war.

“Well, they’re communicators for one thing,” he says. “That’s their business. I’m sure you saw the demonstration. They had a Hollywood set down here.” The Premier sits back on his office sofa for an in-depth interview with Halifax Magazine. “We thought there were core things that we had to invest in as a province, so we invested heavily in public education, health care,” he continues, “but to do that … something had to go.”

Despite the cuts, the province still spent $100 million more than it took in. McNeil blames public-sector salaries.
He cites the Ivany report, which called for a cultural shift where Nova Scotians ask less what their province can do for them, and more what they can do for their province. McNeil says that’s not just true for the film industry, but also other parts of the private sector that ask too quickly for government help.

“I’m not the banker,” he says. “That’s not my role. The Now or Never [Ivany report] wasn’t about the government … it was about our attitude. That’s what had to change, and it is changing.”

So is his popularity. The Angus Reid Institute found McNeil’s 66-per-cent approval rating in June 2014 had fallen to 37 per cent by spring 2015.

Many young people vowed to leave Nova Scotia after the spring budget cuts. The premier sits up and adjusts his tie.

“When we were going through our health-care changes, we were told that the health-care workers were all going to leave Nova Scotia,” McNeil says. “This is a pretty good place. I think it’s the best place to live. People chose to live here. They want to live here. People don’t leave Nova Scotia because they don’t want to be here. They’re leaving because they want a job.”

Of course, some film workers and public-sector employees might say that’s their jobs should have been better protected. A flashback to 1983 offers some insight into McNeil’s thinking.

Picture it: a young, lanky Annapolis Valley teenager wants to find a job that will let him stay in the Valley and one day raise a family near his own family. He gets accepted into Saint Mary’s University, but decides that won’t lead to a job back home.

So in this crisis moment, he gambles big on broken fridges. The young man studies refrigerator repairs at the Nova Scotia Community College, lands a job back in the Valley at age 20, and three years later he buys the company. McNeil’s Appliance Repairs is born.

“The whole thing started out with really wanting to be self-employed and wanting to live where I was living,” McNeil says. “I’ve really only ever done one thing. I’ve only ever been self-employed.”

That changed in 2003 when he won the Annapolis riding for the Liberals. He became the party leader in 2007, shaved his beard, and won the 2013 provincial election.

Now the once proudly self-employed man has 942,925 bosses. Not all of them are happy, and they often vent to Rick Howe, host of News 95.7’s Rick Howe Show.

Howe says the honeymoon may be over, but no one is filing for divorce just yet. The NDP is still without a permanent leader and Jamie Baillie’s Tories “haven’t seemed to connect yet” with voters. “I think for the most part people aren’t displeased with his government,” Howe says. “I just don’t think they’re overly enthused about the government.”

Acting with little consultation, as in the film tax credit, has damaged the government’s reputation, he says. But tackling the civil service was popular with Howe’s audience.

Howe says if the Liberals want a second term, they must deliver on more campaign promises. He hears from listeners wondering about the party’s 2009 pledge to get rid of gas price regulation.

“I think if they follow through on some of those promises, they’ll be okay,” he says. “If the government can balance the books by the time its term is up, then I think it is pretty much guaranteed re-election.”

Another key will be attracting votes from the 16 per cent of Nova Scotians who are seniors. McNeil says we tend to only see older Nova Scotians through the health-care lens. But looked at another way, we have a silver mine on our hands. “I think there is a huge opportunity for us,” he says. “There’s a skill set, a mentoring opportunity, reshaping communities.”

A generation retiring relatively young and wealthy can give a huge amount to the next generation, he says, and the province can benefit from that wisdom through mentoring and community engagement from its most-experienced citizens.

He reels off a list of programs working to keep young people here: the START program, Graduate to Opportunity and Volta, among others.
Perhaps some of those young people and newcomers will find work at the new convention centre going up in central Halifax. Oddly enough, no one, including the premier, has specific plans for the existing convention centre. But he has a detail-free hope that the new centre will bring business to the province and the old one will … find some use.

Or perhaps some of the newcomers and young Nova Scotians will enter politics. After all, McNeil spent 18 years building his own business and scrimping for retirement, only to find his personal pension quickly dwarfed by his generous MLA pension. Recent rule changes mean you only need to be elected once, and serve for two years, to start collecting that government pension at 55.

Does that seem fair to the former businessman?

McNeil says an independent review panel recommended it and so that’s what they did. He adds that small businesses can now tap into a government program that will help them create pension plans for those unfortunate enough to not win one lottery. Sorry, one election.

McNeil lays out the general goals for the second half of his term: grow the economy. “We have a real opportunity as a province and a region,” he says. “With the new trade deal coming in with Europe, we’re their entryway not only to Canada, but frankly to North America.”

On the way out, he shows family photos, including two montages of his now-grown children, and a framed golf course photo that sits behind the premier’s desk. It’s the Azalea hole at Augusta, the sight of a famous Jack Nicklaus win. The golfer found himself in a tough spot and his advisors suggested he “lay up” and work back to the green. Instead, he “whaled away at it” and made the shot.

“I’m a believer that you manage risk, but you don’t be paralyzed by it,” McNeil says. “I don’t get to do this job forever. I’m going to do what I think is in the best interests of this province and people are going to get to pass judgment on me. I’m okay with that. You don’t get to be premier forever.”

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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