Nova Scotia·Analysis

Houston government roars into fall sitting, stumbles out

The premier's first session may be remembered more for his 'poor choice of words' than the bills passed.

Premier repeatedly apologizes for suggesting minimum wage jobs are not 'real jobs'

Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston speaks to reporters at Province House on Nov. 5, 2021. (Michael Gorman/CBC)

In politics, it's not opposition criticism that stings or sticks the most, it's the self-inflicted wounds.

Which is why Tim Houston's first session as Nova Scotia's premier may be remembered more for what he called "a poor choice of words" uttered "in the heat of the moment," than the bills passed by his government in the legislature this fall.

The 17-day sitting saw the passage of 17 government bills, including one to fix election dates in Nova Scotia, a law to set new targets for greenhouse gas emissions and land protection, as well as a two-year extension on the two per cent rent increase cap.

But the sitting ended on a sour note because of an exchange between Houston and NDP Leader Gary Burrill.

The day before the House rose, in response to repeated questions about the minimum wage, Houston suggested minimum wage jobs were not "real jobs."

"What I'm focused on is the economy of this province and making sure that every Nova Scotian has an opportunity in this province and sees themselves as being able to thrive right here in Nova Scotia," Houston shot back at the NDP leader during question period Thursday. 

"And it's not driven by the minimum wage.

"I don't know many Nova Scotians grow up thinking, 'Boy, I hope I make minimum wage when I grow up.' That's not the way people think. They want real jobs."

Speaking to reporters afterward, Burrill called the comments "demeaning, insulting, degrading" to those who earn a minimum wage, including cleaners, servers, cashiers, people who pump gas and continuing care assistants. They are people who, by and large, continued to go to work, even during the worst of the pandemic, Burrill noted.

Houston repeatedly apologized Friday for his "careless words," but both opposition parties questioned the premier's commitment to helping low-income families.

Liberal MLA Brendan Maguire, who the Speaker ejected for repeatedly interrupting the premier during question period, suggested this was further proof of Houston's elitist views.

Liberal MLA Brendan Maguire, seen here in 2018, said Houston's true colours came out when he implied that minimum wage jobs aren't 'real jobs.' (CBC)

"This is the real Tim Houston we're seeing now," he said. "Tens of thousands of Nova Scotians felt like he looked down his nose at them yesterday.

"It is so ironic that you lean on those people to win elections and the moment you get into power with a majority government, you throw them under the bus."

Houston denied he had any disdain for working-class families. 

"I'm certainly not an elitist," Houston told reporters. "I grew up in a family where I had tremendous respect for both of my working parents and for my family members and my friends and social circle who worked hard every single day.

"My dad's 76 and he still works shift work. I'm not an elitist."

Despite Houston's remorse, those words are likely to dog him well beyond his government's first sitting — as is his decision to make general elections in Nova Scotia mid-July votes. The move has generated unanimous condemnation by opposition politicians and those who offered their views when Bill 1 was before the law amendments committee. 

A woman walks up to a voting station in Halifax's north end on Aug. 17, 2021 — the date of the most recent provincial election. (Rose Murphy/CBC)

Houston said the date makes sense, in part, because schools will be available as polling sites during summer vacation.

Civics teachers, however, disagreed and unsuccessfully lobbied to have elections during the school year so that campaigns can be used as teachable moments.

There are other government measures that will continue to be scrutinized, including the creation of panels to examine housing and transportation in the Halifax Regional Municipality.

During public comment on the housing bill, Coun. Sam Austin said it "has the potential to be the biggest interference in municipal jurisdiction, basically since amalgamation."

"It's been 20 years since we've seen anything like this," Austin told the legislature's law amendments committee.

The governing Tories will also continue to be lobbied by advocacy groups unhappy with a bill that will strengthen environmental protections in the province.

Although Bill 57 was passed unanimously, opposition politicians spoke long and passionately about the fact the proposed law could have set more ambitious targets and tougher measures.

It's what the government repeatedly heard during public comment on the bill as it moved through the House.

During this sitting, Houston fired a political staffer with the Justice Department following revelations the staffer made racist comments in a personal social media message about Liberal justice critic Angela Simmonds, who is Black.

Preston MLA Angela Simmonds has said she was overwhelmed by the support shown to her and other Black MLAs by colleagues in the House. (CBC)

The situation sparked passionate debate at the legislature, with Liberal MLA Ali Duale threatening to leave his seat for the rest of the sitting.

Duale, who is Black, called off his protest when Houston offered to strike an all-party committee to draft legislation aimed at tackling systemic racism in government institutions, something the Liberals had been pushing.

Outside the confines of Province House, the Houston government announced measures to improve health care related to virtual care, patient transfers and recruitment efforts aimed at doctors, nurses and continuing care assistants.

A promise the premier wasn't able to make good on during the fall sitting was to pass legislation giving the province's information and privacy commissioner order-making power. Houston said he remains committed to the plan and hopes to have a bill ready to go for the spring.

The fall sitting of the legislature wrapped up Friday at Province House, seen here. (Robert Short/CBC)

Burrill took credit for the extension of the cap on rental increases saying the PCs acted because of the pressure from the New Democrats.

"I think it is true we would not have the two-year temporary extension on rent control if the NDP had not been fighting for this and placing it at the centre of political and public discourse now for a number of years," he told reporters before the sitting wrapped up.

For his part, Liberal Leader Iain Rankin was happy with how his team has adapted to life out of power, despite the "challenge" of being in opposition.

"I think holding [the PCs] to account, pressuring for action on housing together with the NDP, worked very early on," said Rankin.

"The thing I'm most proud of is the performance of the members.

"Almost half our caucus is new and the diversity and the issues that we brought on the floor of the legislature —I've never seen in the eight years that I've been here."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jean Laroche

Reporter

Jean Laroche has been a CBC reporter for 32 years. He's been covering Nova Scotia politics since 1995 and has been at Province House longer than any sitting member.

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