Halifax Chamber of Commerce - Distinguished Speakers Series : Stephen McNeilThank you for inviting me to speak to you today. It is always a pleasure to speak to the Chamber.
Some of you represent small business in this community, responsible for half of the jobs here. Others represent large companies which have been a stabilizing force during these tough economic times. And others represent our public sector workers and not-for-profit sector….which provide the services we expect and depend on. I thank you all for taking the time to come today…and to listen to what I have to say.
To say that the political landscape has changed in the 10 months since I was last here….is a profound understatement! This is the first time I have served in a legislature with a majority government….since being elected as an MLA in 2003. The spirit of co-operation and compromise that was evident during my first six years in the House has changed.
How does that affect you?
Well, it means that government has far less motivation to pass legislation from opposition parties….no matter how much merit that legislation may have. It means that government members dominate committee work. In the past… opposition members had a stronger voice on committees…..we could insist that certain matters in the public interest be open to public scrutiny.
Those two changes alone have a direct effect on how your elected members work…and in turn….the way your interests are served. I think it is fair to say that every member of the House is adjusting to their new roles.
I am especially honoured to be the Leader of the Official Opposition.
I have often joked that I have a personality made for government….because frankly…. I find a steady diet of criticism hard to digest!
We are working hard in our caucus to strike a balance - of endorsing government actions when in the public interest, of constructively criticizing government decisions when warranted and advocating for those whose needs are not being considered.
And I promise you I will do all three as I speak to you today!
Following the last election we increased our caucus by two members….both from right here in HRM. Kelly Regan and Andrew Younger are strong, constructive voices for all Nova Scotians….joining Diana Whalen and Keith Colwell in Metro. Many of you can attest to their enthusiasm and dedication.
So yes….a lot has changed in the past ten months.
But in some ways we have had little progress.
Ten months ago, when I last addressed this group…. I talked about three major issues. My concerns about the economy of Nova Scotia and the lack of meaningful discussion about economic growth; my concerns about energy stability and security; and finally, our lack of competitiveness among our maritime neighbours and the rest of the country.
Frankly, we have made no progress on those three fronts. And I believe we have wasted precious time in addressing them.
But first, I want to deliver on my promise of giving credit where credit is due.
I am pleased that government moved forward with the equity tax credit. This program helps small businesses, co-operatives and community economic development projects. And it rewards Nova Scotians for investing and believing in other Nova Scotians….with a personal income tax credit. It’s constructive. And it’s good public policy.
I am also very pleased how quickly our government responded….on behalf of all Nova Scotians….to the humanitarian crisis in Haiti. Nova Scotians are generous people…and are responding in kind.
But it is important that our government lead the way…and I want to recognize that today.
But I am extremely disappointed, to date, in this government’s inaction on several fronts; in particular, any attempt to spur the economy.
When the panel of economists reported to the Premier last fall, they talked about a three-legged stool….moving forward. Tax increases. Service cuts. And economic growth.
Yet, only two of those are being discussed: tax increases and service cuts. The stool is missing a leg. This government has focused the public debate on those two choices. Silence on economic growth has been the NDP strategy…..prior to the election and since.
In an interview following the panel report last fall, the finance minister made a comment that was frankly absurd. He said his government will choose tax increases which will spur economic growth. I think we all know that tax increases do exactly the opposite. Cherry picking tax increases at this vital crossroads in our economic path is very dangerous.
We already have an uncompetitive tax system compared with our neighbours. We have the highest personal income tax rates in the Atlantic Canada….and the lowest personal exemption. We have the highest gas taxes in the Maritimes. Our small business tax is too high and we start collecting it earlier than our neighbours. And we are the only province in Atlantic Canada that still collects a capital tax on large corporations.
It’s obvious that a comprehensive review of the tax system is required before key elements are tampered with, such as increasing the HST. The unintended consequences could be profound as the province struggles to recover among its peers. Removing the tax on electricity will not help Nova Scotian families if they have to pay an extra 2-percent HST on everything else....one of the ideas being proposed by this government.
Our tax system, which is already uncompetitive, must not be viewed as a cash cow. The business community has been very patient with this government to date.
And I understand why.
Nova Scotians are fair people….they want to give a new, inexperienced government a chance.
We all want our province to succeed and prosper.
But if we don’t get this right….if the right choices are not made now….we will all pay.
I believe it is important for the business community to speak up and be heard when the public debate on our economy is so very narrow. This is not an either-or decision. The choice is not just raising taxes or cutting services. It is about the whole economic picture…and that means being competitive and giving business the tools it needs to grow the economy.
I promise, as Leader of the Opposition, that myself and my caucus will continue to give constructive criticism about creating an economy that can grow. A majority government has the power to make decisions and choices that can profoundly affect us for many years.
The NDP promised not to run a deficit, not to raise taxes and not to cut programs. Nova Scotians believed them and they supported them. Those are three promises that this government cast aside within a few months. The NDP made a calculated decision to make promises they knew they could not keep.
You wouldn’t blame voters for feeling a bit cynical.
In the last session of the legislature, the majority government introduced legislation to eliminate the requirement for balanced budgets. The Liberal Caucus introduced an amendment to put a sunset clause on that legislation. We felt it was important that government commit to balanced budgets in the future.
The NDP rejected that amendment.
The current deficit is a deceit.
The NDP government has worked hard to convince Nova Scotians that this deficit was left to us by the previous government. But let’s examine it a bit more closely:
$353-million dollars paid to university for a bill that is not due until April;
$81 million for land purchases;
$54 million for HINI and wage settlements with employees; and
just these three decisions by this government amount to $488 million of that 525 million deficit.
By any reasonable definition, that lays this deficit squarely at the feet of the NDP government. The increase in the provincial debt rests there, as well.
As I said earlier, one of the difficulties of being the Leader of the Official Opposition is that by definition, we oppose, expose and comment. And we advocate for those who need it. It is very important that our voice…my voice…be a constructive one.
As we move forward we need to make our suggestions positive, concrete and based on realistic goals. A holistic approach is needed.
Our tax system is inseparable from our economy…..it affects our ability to create jobs. Our tax system must be viewed as a whole…..with consideration of every impact it has on our lives and our economy.
Finally, I would like to speak to you about energy security and stability. The people of New Brunswick will ultimately decide on the merits of the deal for Hydro Quebec to buy their power company. That deal has dramatically changed the playing field for all in Atlantic Canada. It has alarmed me to see each government “dig in” and immediately resort to hard line rhetoric.
As a region, we need to ALL benefit from the greener energy solutions and resources within our own provinces. That requires more cooperation, not less.
It means having a vision of our future which includes an enhanced transmission system that carries electricity to and from our neighbours.
Ten months ago when I spoke to the Chamber I said these words:
“We are in challenging times…there is no doubt about it…but we have the ability to make choices that will outlive this crisis…and make Nova Scotia stronger and ready for better times.
That’s why now is the time to be planning for…and building…an energy corridor in Altantic Canada.
That’s the kind of infrastructure that can benefit every community, every business and every family in the province.”
Those words are even more true today.
This government has floated the idea of an expensive underwater transmission connection to the New England market, as opposed to cooperation with our closest neighbours.
Imagine if a government proposed to build a highway….but only one way…out of the province. This is no different.
We needed an interconnected, enhanced transmission system that will allow us all to benefit from greener energy, such as wind, tidal and hydro. That requires cooperation and vision.
We all want a stronger economy, a stronger province and a stronger region.
Energy is one area where all of us can be winners.
Already we see private companies advocating for increased transmission…..even with the uncertainty with the Hydro Quebec deal. There’s money in transmission. That’s why business is there. But there is a role for government.
Government must be prepared to create the environment to facilitate private investment.
Government must be ready to co-operate with neighbouring provinces and the federal government.
That requires vision.
It requires leadership.
And I believe it is not too late.
I want to thank you for inviting me here today. I want to thank you for listening…. I welcome your questions.