Graham Steele: Liberals have a bad case of study-itis

Political analyst Graham Steele reflects on the upcoming sitting of the Nova Scotia legislature.

Liberals have waited for or commissioned studies on almost any issue that matters, says Steele

Stephen McNeil's Liberal government has commissioned a series of studies since they were elected last year.

Nurse, I'd like to report a bad case of study-itis.

I've had it before myself, so I know it when I see it. But this time it's not me. I'm calling for a friend.

Stephen McNeil and the Liberals were elected on a platform of not being Darrell Dexter and the NDP. It's remarkable, then, how similar their first six months has been to the New Democrats.

They'll hate to hear that, but it's true.

On almost any issue that matters, they have waited for or commissioned a series of studies. There's been Ivany on rural development, Traves on economic development, Freeman on education and Broten on taxation.

Politically, studies are useful. Nobody can complain about a government getting more information and expert analysis.

Every stakeholder hopes and believes the study, when finished, will see things their way. Best of all, the government has a perfect answer — "We're looking at it" — to every complaint. For a politician with no clear agenda, that's gold.

The legislature resumes today and the Liberals' first budget will be delivered next week. At a time like this, the Liberals should be setting the agenda. Because of study-itis, they're not.

Instead, the news is dominated by the looming strike by Capital District Health Authority nurses.

Because this particular bargaining unit staffs Nova Scotia's largest hospitals, a strike immediately affects the entire province. The strike might not start officially until next Thursday, but for all practical purposes, it starts today.

That's because it takes a week for administrators to empty the hospitals and cancel medical procedures. I saw all this unfold with a different Capital Health bargaining unit in 2012. The calls start now.

Speech overshadowed

If the nurses are on the picket line next Thursday, expect a strong contingent to greet Finance Minister Diana Whalen on budget day. The images and stories from budget day will then be dominated by conflict.

Consider what happened earlier this week. Within minutes of the finance minister finishing her major pre-budget speech to the Halifax Chamber of Commerce, the premier was meeting with reporters to discuss the nurses' strike. The minister's speech barely registered in the news.

To avoid being dominated by external events — like the nurses’ strike, as well as Michelin job losses and municipal financial woes — a government has to be tough and clear about its own agenda.

If the Liberals have a legislative agenda, we don't know much about it. We do know they're going to introduce legislation to take the efficiency charge off the power bill, starting next January.

That's good populist politics, but bad policy, so the details are proving stubbornly difficult. If consumers don't see a change in their bottom line total, even this one identifiable Liberal initiative will be a political dud, or worse.

Other than that, we know little about what to expect in this sitting of the House of Assembly. The provincial government is a great big multi-headed monster which spits out dozens of housekeeping amendments every year, but that's the bureaucratic agenda.

The New Democrats fell for that one and look where it got us. So what's the Liberal agenda? We don't know yet. They don't know yet. They're studying it.

Ironically, the central sticking point in the Capital Health negotiations — nurse-to-patient ratios — is exactly the sort of thing that should be sent for further study before it's baked into a collective agreement. Fixed ratios haven't been adopted anywhere else in Canada and referring it to a credible panel of experts is the honourable way out for both sides. 

Studies do, after all, have their uses.

About the Author

Graham Steele

Political analyst

Graham Steele is a former MLA who was elected four times as a New Democrat for the constituency of Halifax Fairview. He also served as finance minister. Steele is now a political analyst for CBC News.