Spring sitting at Province House likely to be dominated by health care, cost of living
PC government focused on health, opposition parties set sights on housing, rising costs
As Nova Scotia's 55 MLAs return to Province House for the legislature's spring sitting, there's little mystery around plans and issues each of the three parties will bring to the historic downtown Halifax building.
Premier Tim Houston's government will table its first budget on Tuesday. The Progressive Conservative leader was elected last summer on the promise to "fix" health care, even if it drives up the provincial debt.
So it should come as no surprise his deputy premier and minister of finance, Allan MacMaster, told CBC News this week that spending on health programs and services would dominate the budget he will table next Tuesday.
"When we think about fixing health care, a lot of it doesn't need new legislation or changes to legislation, sometimes it just needs investment or new ideas, solutions," said MacMaster.
"If our goal is to fix the health-care system, we need to make these investments," he said.
The Tories have already started spending more on a series of health-related measures, including raises for continuing care assistants, the establishment of a new mental health day hospital, mental health grants and power lifts for ambulances.
Over the past couple of decades, successive ministers of finance have embraced their role as fiscal stewards of the public purse, but MacMaster made no apologies for any of this pre-budget spending.
"This is a transition," said MacMaster. "We've been elected to do something different.
"The government has been very decisive in terms of acting right away, not being afraid to make the investments and the costs that are associated with that."
While the party in power is focused on health-care spending, Nova Scotia's opposition parties are focused on what it is costing Nova Scotians to keep a roof over their heads and their families fed.
Liberal Leader Iain Rankin and NDP Leader Gary Burrill both said their focus this spring would be trying to get the government to do more to help Nova Scotians struggling with inflation and the high cost of housing.
Rankin would like the province to consider following the Quebec government's lead and offer Nova Scotians $500 each to offset those costs.
"I think we should look at something similar but my preference would be to tier it at those that need it the most," said Rankin.
In Quebec, the cheques will go out to anyone making less than $100,000 a year.
For his part, Burrill is suggesting the government reimpose a ban on so-called renovictions and make sick leave mandatory as part of the provincial labour code.
"They could reconstruct the heating assistance rebate program. They can, particularly significantly, get us moving in the direction of a path towards a living wage."
The government has increased the minimum wage and has pledged in 2024 workers will be making at least $15 an hour.
Burrill said that should be the minimum pay now and the province should be talking about increasing it to almost $20 an hour.
"The heads of the people of Nova Scotia are very much in the place of the cost of gas, oil, food, housing," he said. "I think there's every indication that the present government has got its mind in some kind of another direction."
This sitting, opposition MLAs will also be dealing with internal matters. Both the Liberals and the NDP are in the midst of leadership contests.
Claudia Chender is the only candidate vying to replace Burrill, but two members of the Liberal caucus are in the race to replace Rankin — former education minister Zach Churchill and newly elected MLA Angela Simmons.
Both Liberals have been relieved of their critic duties and will now sit in the back row, rather than the opposition front benches.
Rankin expects both to continue to focus on their house duties rather than campaigning.
"They'll be expected to be in the House every day", said Rankin.
The sitting will mark the second since the start of the pandemic that everyone will be able to be in the building — although they'll be required to wear masks. Members of the public will also be welcomed back for the first time since 2020. Like MLAs, political and legislature staff and reporters, any private citizens wishing to enter Province House must also wear a mask.