Nova Scotia

Chamber of commerce uses premier's speech to tell him budget lacking

The Halifax Chamber of Commerce invited Iain Rankin to deliver his first state-of-the-province address Wednesday, and used the occasion tell the premier, to his face, how his first budget is failing businesses most hurt by the pandemic.

Halifax business group says province not doing enough to help businesses hardest hit by pandemic

Nova Scotia Premier Iain Rankin speaks to the Halifax Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday at the Halifax Convention Centre. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

Nova Scotia Premier Iain Rankin's first state-of-the-province address got off to an awkward start Wednesday, as he was forced to first sit through a six-minute speech in which the chair of the Halifax Chamber of Commerce outlined the many ways his government's first budget was failing business.

Rankin's speech at the Halifax Convention Centre was a recitation of what the governing Liberals believe are the highlights of their 2021-22 fiscal plan, including an increase in university funding, more money for efficiency programs and the plan to make Nova Scotia a "startup capital."

Rankin also used the occasion to announce the creation of an economic growth council to provide advice on economic policy.

According to a government news release, the 10-member council, chaired by former federal Liberal politician Scott Brison, will provide advice to "position the province for economic success and grow the economy as Nova Scotia emerges from the pandemic."

Dale Palmeter, Rankin's principal secretary, is a lifelong friend and a longtime political advisor to Brison.

Gavin MacDonald is the chair of the board of directors of the Halifax Chamber of Commerce. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

The hosts of the chamber of commerce event seemed unimpressed with what the Rankin has done to date to help businesses survive the economic harm caused by COVID-19.

Board chair Gavin MacDonald said the recent provincial budget "provided virtually no new money or supports for the businesses most impacted by the pandemic," even with a $859-million increase in departmental expenses, including more spending on health, community services and education.

During a question-and-answer session, chamber president Patrick Sullivan pressed the premier to provide more aid to businesses hard hit by the pandemic, particularly those in the tourism sector.

"There didn't seem a lot for those impacted businesses," said Sullivan.

Rankin would not commit to doing more, unless his government was forced to once again order businesses to close.

"We don't have endless amounts of money," he said. "We're at a half-a-billion-dollar deficit right now. We have to recognize that every dollar we're spending is debt."

Airport testing

Rankin was also lukewarm to the chamber's ongoing call to start COVID-19 testing at Halifax's Stanfield International Airport.

"Anyone traveling in can get a test," said Rankin who also noted Nova Scotia Chief Medical Officer of Health Robert Strang had not yet recommended testing airline passengers.

"There is discussion right now about starting at the airport with their employees and then potentially looking at travelers," said Rankin, without committing one way or another to the measure.