Part II: Reply to the Speech from the ThroneMr. Speaker,
I am pleased to rise today as the Leader of the Official Opposition to continue my response to the Speech from the Throne on behalf of the Liberal Caucus and on behalf of all Nova Scotians. The people of this province deserve a strong, active Opposition to hold the government to account and make sure they keep the promises they’ve made. That is our duty and it is one we take very seriously.
I would like to introduce the new members of the Liberal Caucus. Make no mistake, the Member for Bedford-Birch Cove is a quick study. Her determination to make a positive impact in the lives of others is rooted in her values – her deep Liberal values. She is conscientious and committed and has already proven herself to be a valuable member of our team.
I would like to welcome the Member for Dartmouth East. He truly defied the odds to join us. He did so because he had a strong record of delivering for the people of his former district. He brings insight, creativity and ideas to the table.
I have absolutely no doubt that he will prove himself to be an active and effective legislator.
I look forward to working closely with both new members as well as our team of returning MLAs.
Congratulations to the Conservative Interim Leader. I wish her all the best in her new role. The Member from Colchester North and I may differ in our philosophies, we may differ in our approach, but I have always enjoyed working with her and look forward to doing so in this session. I appreciate her humour, her good nature and I respect her commitment to the province.
Apart from acknowledging the new faces and new responsibilities, I would like to take a moment to remember friends and former Members of this house who have left us in the past year leaving behind an obvious void, but also a rich legacy of delivering for the people of this province.
We should all be thankful for the lives and accomplishments of Dr. Bill Gillis, Guy Brown, Ed Lorraine and Michael Baker and their many, many contributions to Nova Scotians.
I look forward to working with the legislative staff, the library staff, the pages, and all those employees who support us and enable us to do our jobs on a daily basis.
And finally, a warm and heartfelt thank you to the voters of Annapolis for their steadfast commitment to me, for their belief in me and their tireless work on my behalf. They are the reason I entered public life and it is a good day for me when I can help a constituent, no matter how big or small the issue. That, to me, is the essence of what we do as elected officials.
We are here to help. We are here to advocate for people. We are here to ensure that government is fair that decisions are transparent and that people always come first.
I have travelled the province, speaking to Nova Scotians about their hopes for the future. Their expectations are modest, but reasonable. They want the best possible opportunities for their children, a healthcare system that works, and a government that helps – not hinders – the daily efforts of hardworking Nova Scotians. They expect politicians to keep their promises. They want to be part of the decision-making process. They are looking to government to offer a plan to strengthen our economy so we can protect and expand the programs and services we all value.
Nova Scotians expect a plan. Not just for today, or next year, or four years from now. Nova Scotians need benchmarks, projects to unite us and goals to inspire us. So I will be listening to this government, examining the budget and asking, at every opportunity:
• Do we have a roadmap for future prosperity?
• Does it build the foundation for a thriving, competitive Nova Scotia?
• Does it help restore our reputation among the Atlantic provinces?
• Does it position us to emerge as the leaders that we ought to be?
I recognize that our success as a province depends on how we handle the current fiscal situation and the challenges that are before us. It also hinges on our collective ability to look ahead, to predict the opportunities that will exist and to build a foundation for success.
I would like share a short story with you. When the new Member for Bedford-Birch Cove was nominated last year, she shared a personal story in her acceptance speech. It was a story that stuck with me because it captured the way I feel about Nova Scotia. She told about how she chose to move to Halifax from Ontario because at that time, Halifax was a leader. We led the pack in Atlantic Canada. Things were happening. It was an exciting time and she wanted to be part of the energy of this great city. That was then - but we have fallen behind.
I have heard the Premier say many times that Halifax is the epicentre of the region and we need to cultivate and capitalize on the energy and ideas of Haligonians. I couldn’t agree with him more. But this potential exists not just for Halifax, but for the entire province. From Sydney to Yarmouth and beyond, we have leading educational institutions. We have the brainpower, a rich cultural heritage, natural geographic advantages and a tradition of entrepreneurship. I was very fortunate to have been able to get an education, run a business and raise my family right here in Nova Scotia. I want those opportunities for every Nova Scotian. We all know that we can do better. We can be stronger working together, with a clear plan for the future.
Accountability in government means taking responsibility for promises, actions, policies, decisions and providing transparency in decision-making. Liberals are committed to holding this government accountable. The current government ran a campaign on change. They promised to do things differently. They promised a new way of doing business. Mr. Speaker, from what I have seen, there’s nothing new about this government.
On Monday, the Finance Minister told guests at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon that Nova Scotia does in fact have a deficit and this deficit is more than twice what they were predicting – a whopping $590 million. This was a far cry from the predictions of the government-commissioned Deloitte report. At close observation, Liberals determined that the NDP had taken a page directly out of the former government’s playbook. They decided to pay a bill ahead of schedule. They decided to spend 278 million dollars they didn’t have. This government has chosen to make an advance payment to the universities on a commitment that is due next year. This is money that the government has to borrow at a cost of $10 million dollars. That’s the equivalent of 170 teachers, 140 nurses. This government will claim the upcoming budget rests at the feet of the former government.
But let’s be clear. Half that deficit belongs to the NDP. This is political maneuvering with a single purpose – to shift the blame back to the Conservatives for the deficit. When the former Conservative government tried the same trick of paying in advance, Premier Dexter called it a “fudge-it Budget.” He said, “It really is a strange way to go about budgeting for a province.”
Mr. Speaker - now he is doing the exact same thing. It’s becoming very clear that this government has a different standard for themselves than for the previous government. It’s not alright for the government to say “trust us, we’re new, we’re different than the others”. Government must earn that trust. They must be forthcoming with taxpayers, they must conduct business in a transparent manner, and they must tell Nova Scotians how they intend to reach their goals.
During the campaign, the NDP committed to balancing the books without using the offshore offset payment, making program cuts or raising taxes. On top of these promises, they failed to offer a real plan to stimulate economic growth. The reality is this is a deficit budget. Liberals knew it, Nova Scotians knew it - but the NDP failed to acknowledge it. Instead, they attempted to mislead Nova Scotians.
There was clear political motivation behind commissioning the Deloitte Financial Review. By inflating expenditures to 5%, they could inflate the deficit and back away from their previous commitment to balance the books. Now, they intend to amend the Finance Act to allow for a deficit budget. Once again, a move they opposed in Opposition. A move that contributed to the defeat of the former government.
This is another case of saying one thing and doing another. If the NDP intend to balance the budget next year, they must be prepared to tell Nova Scotians exactly how they intend to do it. Even members of the Premier’s economic advisory panel are cautioning against a promise to balance the books next year. One member was recently quoted as saying, “Is it doable? I suppose it's doable if you want to cut a few universities, a few hospitals and increase taxes." Once again, accountability in government means taking responsibility for promises and providing transparency in decision-making. Accountability is also about taking responsibility for decisions.
There appears to be an interesting trend developing with this government:
• The Deloitte report
• The economic advisory panel
• The hiring of an ER Advisor
• Passing the buck to the Utility and Review Board for decisions on gas regulation
That’s not genuine leadership. Government is about making tough decisions. It’s about taking responsibility for those decisions.
The Liberal Caucus is committed to our new role as Official Opposition. We will hold the government to account and point out inconsistencies. We will recommend improvements. And we will continue to be constructive in our approach. Our caucus will be introducing legislation this fall that falls under three general headings. Accountability, fairness and advocacy for those Nova Scotians who need their voices heard.
It is not alright for this government to say, “trust us with healthcare, we’re new, we’re different from the others.” Government must earn that trust.
Let’s look at accountability in healthcare. The NDP promised Nova Scotians that emergency rooms would remain open 24/7 and a provincial coordinator would be put in place to deal with the issue. The province’s emergency rooms have been closed a total of 7,760 hours in 2009 alone. Where is the ER Advisor? To arrive at an ER and find it locked with a note on the door is simply not acceptable. Emergency healthcare is an essential service and we can do better.
Liberals have offered short and long-term solutions to the ER crisis. In fact, we provided information to the government shortly after the election on a proposed locum service. The implementation of a locum service for doctors willing to service ERs is an effective, creative way to help ease the staffing problems. We know of doctors who are willing to travel and provide service – some Nova Scotia doctors are actually travelling out of province to cover ER shifts. Unfortunately, there is no central registry to link those doctors with the hospitals who need their services here in our province. Our collective goal should be quality healthcare for all Nova Scotians, where and when you need it. Every family in Nova Scotia should have a doctor. A lack of doctors contributes to a host of problems, including delays in diagnoses and clogged emergency rooms.
Our caucus has pushed hard to make this a reality and ensure a steady supply of physicians for under-serviced communities. We succeeded in working with the previous government to designate 5 medical school seats at Dalhousie University for those students who are willing to make this commitment. Government would pay their tuition in return for 5 years of service in an under-serviced area. We will continue to advocate for 20 seats a year until we have 100 doctors working where they’re needed, serving families in their own communities. This is a practical solution – a constructive solution – to a serious challenge.
To me, fairness means good public policy that is in the best interests of all Nova Scotians. Liberals know we need to live within our means and invest taxpayers’ money wisely, in a manner that is transparent and sustainable. We are committed to strengthening our economy, so we can secure and improve the programs and services we all value. The Liberal Caucus has been offering very specific measures to grow the economy and make us more competitive. These ideas are designed to benefit all Nova Scotians equally. We believe in fairness in taxation and have advocated for reducing the tax burden for small businesses. This would assist small business, have a significant economic impact and help improve the lives of everyone.
We are also in favour of eliminating the expensive and ineffective gas regulation system. Nova Scotia taxes gasoline at the second highest rate in Canada. High gas prices place a heavy burden on Nova Scotians. They create a significant competitive disadvantage for businesses operating in the province. What’s worse and inherently unfair is the government’s plan to adjust the gas tax rate in communities along the border of New Brunswick; a province where gas prices are consistently lower. This idea is fundamentally flawed. The government believes in setting an artificial border between Cumberland County and the rest of our province. Liberals believe Cumberland County belongs in Nova Scotia. Creating arbitrary borders will only serve to divide Nova Scotians and move the problem somewhere else. This is a New Deal for some Nova Scotians.
The Liberal Caucus is committed to being a force for positive change in the lives of Nova Scotians. As elected officials, we are here to help. We are here to advocate for people and we must never lose sight of this objective. In previous sessions, our caucus has introduced legislation to help diabetics, mental health consumers, firefighters, seniors, students, working families and those who struggle with poverty. In the upcoming session, we will not abandon our commitment to help bring about change. We will continue to be strong advocates for poverty reduction, fairness in taxation, access to healthcare, and sustainable energy development that benefits all Nova Scotians. Liberals believe in the great potential of Nova Scotia. We know this is a province of vast resources, immense talent and limitless possibility.
As the Official Opposition, we are committed to holding the government accountable for the promises they’ve made to Nova Scotians. We know that government can benefit from the voices and opinions of others. That’s why we will continue to be constructive - because, quite simply, we seek the best for all Nova Scotians.
I look forward to a productive session.