Nova Scotia·Q&A

N.S. premier says health care remains top priority after first full year in office

Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston said his government will continue to chip away at promises to fix the health-care system.

Tim Houston reflects on decisions taken by his government in 2022

Premier Tim Houston of Nova Scotia is shown at a press conference.
Premier Tim Houston says working on the problems plaguing Nova Scotia's health-care system will continue to be the focus of his government's work. (Robert Short/CBC)

As 2022 winds to a close, Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston says health care remains the main priority for his government.

Houston was elected to office in August 2021 promising to improve the province's strained health-care system.

Speaking on CBC Radio's Information Morning Cape Breton after his first full year as premier, Houston said his government is "chipping away" at the problem.

Houston also spoke about his government's approach to Nova Scotia Power and Crown corporations during his year-end interview with host Steve Sutherland.

Their conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

What are a couple of those innovative ideas that excite you, where you think the metrics [in health care] are going to shift?

Well, a lot of stuff around recruitment [and] retention, of course. That's kind of front and centre, recruiting doctors and nurses and keeping the ones we have.

Many hands is what's required here. We put an action for health plan out there — [the] first plan that this province has had in a generation. We have a website that goes with that. People can really see exactly what's happening in the system.

Trying to use technology. I was at the [Victoria General] and for the first time there's an actual command centre. It's about 20 people, sitting in the same room, trying to manage beds to get people moving through the system. 

These types of things are structural changes that will start to pay dividends for sure. But suffice it to say that we're not resting for one minute on that file. We are completely focused on that file.

Let's talk about Nova Scotia Power and your legislation to cap rate increases. We already have an independent, arms-length process in the Utility and Review Board. What does it say about that process that you are circumventing it?

We're not circumventing it. We gave them some guidelines. 

They can decide what they decide about the rates, but we've been very clear that it won't be above 1.8 per cent increase and we want those increases to go towards reliability.

What it says is that the government of this province understands that we have to protect the ratepayers of this province. We want a strong utility that provides reliable power and does it at a fair price. 

I believe we can have all those things, but I just needed with the legislation to make sure that Nova Scotia Power understands we're serious about the reliability and we're serious about the fair prices.

So if it takes legislation, whatever it takes, we will do it to protect the ratepayers of this province.

What about that idea that you're basically doing an end run around an existing arms-length, independent, regulated process?

We're not taking any chances. That's how I would describe it.

We're not taking any chances that the rates go to a level that we don't think is fair. So we've said, look, you can go through your process and you can make your decision on the rates, but it won't be above this.

There are some things in life you can leave to chance. This is not something we were prepared to leave to chance. So we put some guidelines around that.

After completing his first full calendar year in office, we wrap things up with Premiere Tim Houston.

I'm really, really distressed about this Muskrat Falls situation.

Nova Scotia ratepayers have paid hundreds of millions of dollars and that power hasn't come and since that power didn't come, when we needed power we had to go buy more power at incredibly high rates.

Guess who paid for that? Nova Scotians again.

NSP now had its credit rating downgraded to the lowest corporate investment grade on the continent. And NSP said their spending on the Atlantic loop has to be paused. My understanding is that will put your climate change goals out of reach.

No, Nova Scotia power and Emera, their parent company, have a lot of smart people and they're well paid. And my message to them is manage your business, manage your  relationships. They can manage those relationships with the credit agencies. That's their job. People are paid lots of money. I think some of those people over there make millions of dollars a year.

The Maritime loop will be an ongoing discussion. We legislated our climate change goals. We're serious about those. If Nova Scotia Power doesn't want to participate in that process, then we'll have to assess that when that point in time comes. But in the meantime, we have in this province incredible wind speeds onshore and offshore, incredible potential around green hydrogen.

Those will help us with our climate change goals, and we'll just look for willing partners that want to participate in the process in a productive way.

There's a consensus that you can't get to our climate change goals without access to green energy via the Atlantic Loop.

I don't know who reached that consensus you referred to, but I'm not part of that consensus. I would say the Atlantic Loop makes it easier for sure.

But what also makes it easier is offshore wind. We want to work with the federal government. We need some regulations from them, so we can get going on that.

That's why we don't believe the carbon tax is necessary. 

If the federal government really wanted to help the environment, they would work with us on those regulations for offshore wind so we could bring some of that on the grid. Power from Muskrat Falls, if they would actually do their job and get that flowing, that also goes towards our goals.

I don't subscribe to the fact that if you don't play ball with Nova Scotia Power, then they're going to take their toys and go home.

Something else that was on your agenda in 2022 was your government taking steps to dissolve a number of arms-length boards in this province which includes, among many others, Nova Scotia Business Inc., Innovacorp, Nova Scotia Lands and all five of the regional housing authorities, and putting the ultimate decision-making responsibility back under the ministers [responsible]. Can you tell us how this fits into your vision for where things are going?

There are a number of Crown corps and agencies and boards that have been set up over the years. I think there's almost a couple hundred of them, and many of them can't even get a quorum on their boards.

We knew we need to consolidate and reorganize the structure here, so that's what we're doing. The first part of that is around economic developments. We're going to consolidate a number of economic development agencies under two. One is Build Nova Scotia and one is Invest Nova Scotia and just keep that focus so that the company who's reaching out for some assistance in some way, shape or form has a kind of a one stop shop.

I don't mind being held account to those things. 

Were you seeing something in particular about how these organizations were being run?

I think most Nova Scotians really talk about the amount that's invested in economic development and then look at the results.

I think anyone would generally say we can do better. We're just looking to do better, that's all.

We want to be very focused and we want to make sure that it's an effective, efficient use of taxpayer dollars and I think we can do that with a consolidated structure with a very capable CEO and a great management team there, and we can just be focused on what matters to Nova Scotia.


With files from Information Morning Cape Breton

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