Stephen McNeil: Canada’s Most Underrated Premier?

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I’ve watched cynical people govern our province for decades.

Politicians who fixated on polls, by-elections and the “political angle” of decisions. Officials who cared more about personal re-election than dealing with the deep, systemic issues they promised to fix.

They governed for personal re-election. That was the goal.

Stephen McNeil is the first premier in my lifetime to make this province richer and more populous than when he took office.

He’s the first premier in my lifetime to deliver balanced budgets, allowing public money to go towards services, not creditors and big banks. Since he took office, our credit rating has been upgraded several times, freeing up millions of new dollars every year for vital services like healthcare and education.

For generations, young people fled this province. Thousands a year. They built the skyscrapers in Toronto and the oilfields in Alberta. 

Every Premier in living memory promised to fix youth out-migration. Every single one failed, with one exception. We didn’t just stop the out-migration. We are not a net-recipient of young people. That’s a HUGE deal. 

Every Premier in living memory also promised to grow immigration, both internationally and interprovincially. They had some success on this file, but young people remained our largest export. Under McNeil, immigration has grown to the highest level in Nova Scotia history. We’ve become a magnet for Canadians from other provinces. And no, they aren’t all “oil patch kids who came back after the bust”. Since 2015, Albertans have constituted about 25% of interprovincial migrants. That’s substantial, but far from the only driver.

If you want to actually fix healthcare, internal and international immigration is the best long-term solution. The sad truth is, there just aren’t enough taxpayers to meet demand. The only other substantive solution I can think of would be tying federal transfer payments to healthcare demand, which will probably never happen (but hopefully will). The “ideas” put forward by politicians like Tim Houston and Gary Burrill mostly deal with re-naming things and shuffling bureaucrats. I’ve yet to see a quality proposal that is both viable and substantive from either of them in the past 6 years.

It’s sad to see Tim Houston run a vapid campaign that targets voters on almost solely on healthcare without providing any actual solutions. Doug Ford did this with the breathless repeating of the “Hallway Healthcare” line. Did he actually fix anything once he got in? No, of course not. That’s not the point. The point is getting elected. The government is a complex, multibillion-dollar institution that employs tens of thousands of people. You can’t fix it with clever slogans or smart PR people.

I find Tim’s approach to be very cynical, but I’ll readily admit that It’s very smart politics. If I were his communications director, I’d double down on it. It’s much easier to run on “FIX HEALTHCARE NOW!” than “Let’s increase international exports, renegotiate vague and outdated contracts, reduce net debt to GDP and increase funding for the AIPP”.  It’s just a very obvious carbon copy of the politics we had prior to McNeil.

And yes, “A doctor for every Nova Scotians” was a horrible line and should have never been said. But saying a dumb thing 6 years ago doesn’t discount all the progress being made on healthcare. It’s not about vague “pledges” or sloganeering. It’s about investing in healthcare infrastructure and doctor recruitment. Those things take years. They aren’t sexy. But that’s just the sad truth. Healthcare isn’t an issue because of the NSHA or Randy Delorey. It has more to do with us being the third oldest jurisdiction in North America and one of the poorest provinces in Canada. 

“People lie, numbers don’t” is a good thing to remember when listening to politicians. It’s easy to come up with a slick marketing campaign. It’s hard to reverse trends that have sucked young people and wealth from this province for generations.

So yes, I am biased in this respect. I admire McNeil deeply. I don’t know where he gets the courage to be so bold. He never folds under pressure. If he had a “political capital” bank account, we’d been foreclosing on Province House. 

Courage is NOT about doing what’s popular. It’s about doing what’s right, especially when it hurts. But you can’t improve without sacrifice. That’s true in our personal lives. It’s also true for our province.

We don’t know how lucky we are.

– John Grant, Founder of Urban Halifax and Vice-Chair (Fr) of the Nova Scotia Young Liberals.

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