Ray Ivany and the Cold Hard Truth About Our Culture of… Whaaa?

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In March of 2002 Stephen Harper set off a firestorm of criticism after being quoted in the Saint John Telegraph Journal. When asked about the economic performance of the region, he responded by saying, “I think in Atlantic Canada, because of what happened in the decades following Confederation, there is a culture of defeat that we have to overcome. …Atlantic Canada’s culture of defeat will be hard to overcome as long as Atlantic Canada is actually physically trailing the rest of the country.”

The headline writer didn’t have to dig to deep to find gold. His political opponents of the day didn’t have to work to hard to extrapolate all the verbal batons with which to beat him over the head. I still believe had Mr. Harper not framed it just so, the federal political landscape might look a lot less Liberal and NDP is this neck of the woods. I knew as soon as I read that he said it there would be a significant personal political price he would pay in Atlantic Canada. There was.

Fortunately, Ray Ivany and his panel on Nova Scotia’s economic recovery aren’t worried about getting elected. If any politician had stood up and spoke as frankly as Ivany did yesterday, political opponents would be falling over themselves to discount the formidable truth of what was said. It was true 12 years ago. It’s still true today.

The panel’s findings are nothing new. Collectively we all realized or at least suspected the key points. People who are paying attention have known it for a long time. The Herald editorial call it a “unvarnished, awkward and often unflattering truth— about our collective selves.”

Essentially, the report says we have developed a culture of “No”. Call it what you will but Harper’s 2002 interpretations ain’t far off. We can argue about policies going back to Confederation that have entrenched this attitude but there is no denying it exists…in Now or Never, An Urgent Call to Action for Nova Scotians,  Ivany’s panel affirmed this in spades.

Among other points, it’s made clear we depend too heavily on government interventionism. Ivany takes pains to point out some new program or policy tweak is not going to turn this around.

Evidence of this may no clearer than our response to the shipbuilding procurement strategy. There is no denying that injecting 30 billion dollars into a local economy will have an impact…but let’s see it for what it is. It’s primarily federal public money backed up by provincial public money going into DND, another publicly funded entity. It’s redistribution not wealth creation.

Is this simply going to become another government teat on which we will become dependent or do we actually believe it will transmogrify into private sector wealth creation and development? To do that we had better understand that it’s through the private sector we will make that happen through export development and market expansion of defense technology. I can already hear the naysayers.

Government also has to look at its relationship to business and figure out how to get the hell out of the way. Our tax and regulatory load in this province is debilitating. All the payroll tax credits and government “incentives” in the world won’t alleviate the outright punitive measures that are in place to set up shop and run a business in Nova Scotia. Can you say the highest Workman’s Comp rates, convoluted apprenticeship regulations, the First Contract Arbitration legislation…? I could go on for days. While we’ve seen some nominal reduction of regulatory burden recently, it’s not nearly enough.

On my radio program I tried on many occasions to talk about immigration. From most of the calls I received, we don’t much like folks “from away”. This is bad. Very bad.

Ivany’s report talks about our demographic decline. We have a rapidly aging workforce and shocking levels of out-migration. These alarm bells have been ringing for a dozen years.

It’s not good enough to just tolerate higher levels of immigration, as a culture we must be embracing the benefits of immigration and promoting Nova Scotia as a place that wants and welcomes immigrants. The provincial government may not be able to solve this problems on its own, but having the highest personal, business and consumption taxes in the country doesn’t exactly say “céad míle fáilte”.

Perhaps the most refreshing component of yesterday’s illuminations was Ivany’s insistence that this was a message for the people of the province, not simply a message for government. While I accept his point, government however is how we collectively make decisions and it is, or ideally should be, a reflection of our collective will. Let’s hope government listens and embraces these ideas.

Ivany usefully called for long-term targets be legislated and that the legislation be enforced. I would take this a step further and demand short, medium and long-term targets be legislated and rigorous metrics be transparently applied to ensure governments are meeting those goals and reporting back to the public.

It’s true we may not be capable of running government like business but we can sure as hell take a few cues from successful enterprise and apply it to public policy.

Ivany’s comment about Nova Scotia taking a long hard collective look in the mirror is a great one. Often when criticism comes from outside, as Maritimers, we are too quick to become defensive. Ivany has said we need to take an honest look at ourselves, reset our attitudes and get on with the work of turning our beloved province around.

I guess it just must be said by someone who isn’t “from away.”

Horse Trading Ain’t What It Used To Be

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My sister fell in love with horses when she was a pre-teen. My daughter, pictured above inherited some of the same sensibilities.

We used to have a riding stable near the cottage where we spent our summers. “Wellings” had a small paddock and one of the rites of summer was heading down horseback ride, being led around a small ring and getting a picture taken. For me at 6 or 7 years old, it was a pleasant diversion, for my sister it was the discovery of something much deeper.

Without going into too much detail, my sister went on to develop a deep and lifelong love of horses. As exemplified by her photos included in this blog, she developed a keen understanding and spiritual connection with all things equine. It’s not Equus but a case certainly can be made that her intuitive understanding of horses is unique, to say the least. She’s pretty connected to most animals, but horses hold a very special place in her heart and soul.

It’s not hard to understand why she is very upset over Canada’s policy toward horse slaughter. And she’s not alone. A small army of people who love horses have been working diligently to draw attention to an extremely unpleasant, covert and possibly illegal practice taking place throughout the country. It’s an industry that is growing and may in fact leave Canada in the unenviable position of being one of the few nations in the world promoting horses for human consumption.

As our trade relationship with China and the EU grows, one only needs to look at the consumption rates for horse meat in some of these countries to see this economic “opportunity”. In 2005 China consumed over 420,000 metric tonnes of horse meat, Italy 54,000 tonnes. That ain’t chopped liver.

In 2013, the European Union was drawn into a scandal involving the use of horse meat in the food supply. Horse meat is sold in several European countries in specialty shops but te scandal emerged as undeclared horse meat DNA was turning up in beef burgers, canned meat, pasta, meatballs and other processed foods being sold by major grocery retailers and fast food outlets. Some levels were as high as 29%.

Horse meat is not harmful for human consumption, but the evidence pointed to some pretty unsettling conditions in the supply chain and raised important questions about the origin of the meat itself.

Canada is an exporter of horse meat, and there are serious questions about whether the meat is fit for human consumption and if Canada is stepping into some pretty ethically dark corners.

Canada’s horse meat industry has been under scrutiny by groups fighting horse slaughter for some very good reasons. There are few purpose bred horse meat operations in Canada. (Although, it’s growing and I’ll deal with that a little further down the page.) Most of the horse meat produced in this country originates in the leisure, racing or show horse worlds.

Ever wonder what happens to that beautiful mare your daughter loved so much growing up? Eventually when these pleasure horses get past their best-before date, they are sold to suppliers who are more than happy to transport them to an abattoir to be bolted, bled and hung until they are packed for export, or crated and shipped on the hoof for slaughter in other countries.

And this isn’t for pet food. US and Canadian horse meat is a lucrative business. In some cases matching prices for veal. While many cultures see horse meat as a taboo, there is growing acceptance in “foodie” culture about the use of horse meat. 83% of respondents to a survey in the UK  were supportive of Gordon Ramsay serving horse meat in his restaurants.

In the USA however, there has been strong opposition to horse slaughter for a several years. That has meant many horses were shipped to slaughter facilities in Canada for disposition. Condition for shipment have been lax and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has done a universally lousy job of ensuring conditions at slaughter facilities were humane or for that matter even clean. Here’s an interview I did with Vickery Eckhoff from Forbes magazine about this issue in January 2012 on Maritime Morning.

It’s easy to explain away the contempt for this practice as the protestation of horse anthropomorphism or Pollyanna-ish sentimentalism. It’s true not all horses are National Velvet, but when it comes to a matter of public food policy there is a need for the federal government and its agencies to be transparent about food production and clear about the policies it is promoting.

Last week Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz announced today an investment of nearly half a million dollars in Equine Canada to help develop key export markets with what they referred to as the long-term potential for the sale of Canadian-bred horses and horse genetics. They referred to “Their use for sport and leisure, tourism, breeding, food production and related industries.” If Equine Canada is now subsidized by the feds to promote selling Canadian horse meat in the EU, the government has a responsibility to tell all those folks showing up for the Atlantic Winter Fair where that nice bay hunter-jumper stallion is going after his retirement.

Without getting into the arguments about selling phenylbutazone laced horse meat to unsuspecting clients overseas, Canada should also look at the practice of selling purpose bred food horses too. Because of the recent US decisions on restrictions on horse slaughter and its impact on exporting leisure, racing and other horses to Canada for slaughter, we can assume domestic purpose-bred operations will ramp up. Recently the Canadian Horse Defense Coalition has complained about the practice of selling purpose bred draft hoses to Japan to be sliced up for sakuraniku, a sashimi style dish of lean, raw horse meat. It’s not so much the slaughter question here, it’s the transport of these animals in far less than humane conditions.

I’m not particularly squeamish about eating meat. As an apex predator I realize that if I want to eat meat, some other creature has to die. What I do want to know is that as a country, we are doing everything in our power to make sure animals destined for our dinner table are handled humanely en route to their fate.

I won’t eat horse meat for the same reason I have no desire to eat dogs, cats or primates.

As Herman Melville said so eloquently, “There is a touch of divinity even in brutes, and a special halo about a horse, that should forever exempt him from indignities.” 

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The Bluenose marathon

The Bluenose marathon has the potential to leave Nova Scotians breathless, weak and struggling across the finish line…and then there’s the race.

Ba-dum.

The saga to restore Nova Scotia’s most familiar icon, Bluenose II, is beginning to supersede the racing legend of the original Grand Banks Schooner. This tale however is not one rich in Canadian accomplishment, pride and celebration. This latest yarn is steeped more in bureaucracy, greed, bungling and ineptitude. It’s unlikely any catchy shanties will be written.

The old salts of Lunenburg are rightly concerned, skeptical and angry about what is being done to the pride of their shipyard. There are a group of folks who have been carefully watching what is going on with the restoration of Bluenose II. They don’t watch on webcams or read provincial media releases, they are much closer to the boat than that. Former crew, wooden ship builders…those who know their way around a waterfront. Word is, they don’t like what they are seeing and hearing.

Add to this, today, Kevin Lacey of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation is releasing a number of documents outlining some of the goings on around the rebuild. The documents obtained through the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act show some of the reasons behind the budget ballooning from $14,000,000 to over $17,000,000 and counting.

The project is managed by MHPM of Ottawa, a company that curiously doesn’t normally work in the shipbuilding sector. The CTF noted in December the project management contract was three times over budget and the meter was still ticking as Nova Scotians continue to fork over a $25,000 per month retainer in spite of the project being months overdue and millions over budget.

Interestingly, rebuilding a Canadian icon doesn’t warrant a spot on the front page of the MHPM website. Sea trials still won’t get underway until this spring.

So, we don’t have Percy Paris and Darrell Dexter to kick around on this file anymore but it must be clear to the Liberals they have a mess on their hands. The new Communities, Culture and Heritage Minister is Tony (Be Careful what You Wish For) Ince. I’m sure Tony is a nice fellow, but his background as a Community Services Counselor, sales rep and actor may not have prepared him to sort out this political, cultural and financial quagmire.

My guess is, this file may have had at least something to do with Kellianne Dean being asked to come back from the Public Service Commission and back into Communities, Culture and Heritage as Deputy Minister. She held this position for six years and is widely regarded as one of the brighter lights in the bureaucracy. Tony may need some help.

None the less, she and her rookie Minister may have some ‘splainin’ to do.

I don’t know much about buying big sailing ships, but is it really a yachting industry standard for boat builders to charge 43% markups on materials purchased that are changes from the original contract? Any chance the the Minister responsible could have negotiated some better terms?

They say you can get the same feeling of owning a sailboat by standing in a cold shower tearing up hundred-dollar bills, but there is no real reason taxpayers in this province should have this same sensation foisted up them. Mr. Lacey’s FOIPOP documents will make those of us who shop for bargains to make ends meet…just a little queasy. That familiar seasick feeling will come from reading the contract signed by Minister Paris and Peter Kinley, President and CEO of the Lunenburg Shipyard Alliance.

If I’m Seattle Seahawk’s owner Paul Allen, I suppose a 43% markup on these sorts of things going into my yacht wouldn’t feel out of line. However, the taxpayers of Nova Scotia are not Paul Allen and this unquestionably poor oversight of public money.So what does this “markup” mean in real terms. Here are a couple of examples Lacey noted.

  • A couple of years ago the delivery man dropped off a couple of washers and dryers. Cost to the builder, about $5,400. Cost to you and me, $7,722.
  • Some portholes were ordered in November of 2012. Cost to the builder about $12,950…cost to you and me? Just under $17,440.

Not exactly rollback day at Walmart.

So, who cares. Somebody is making a boatload of money from a government contract. What else is new?

Well, some questions have to be asked why this is happening and there are many other questions swirling around valuable materials taken from the original vessel. Who owns these and what happens to the proceeds from their sale?

What should be a proud moment for all Nova Scotians is awash in questions and problems. An internal review was ordered by Minister Ince and he says the results will be made public. Nice gesture but this might, as Lacey is rightly suggesting, be a job better suited for the incoming Auditor General.

Even as retiring AG Jacques LaPointe sails over the horizon, there are rumours afloat that this new iteration of the Bluenose II may not even be able to perform properly under canvass. According to some sources, the new rudder has required significantly more ballast to be added near the keel, limiting the vessel’s ability to sail per the original design specs.

Well, it might not win any races, but we still love Bluenose II and its legacy certainly deserves better than what we have seen delivered so far. As a point of pride, most Nova Scotians would agree that rebuilding Bluenose II as an ambassador is a good idea. It’s enormous value representing our province is hard to measure. But that is not a reason to ignore the potential for unnecessary profiteering by those doing the work.

My 50 cents worth.

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The Liberals look a bit dim on Efficiency Nova Scotia

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The recent 19.5% rate hike the Utility and Review Board imposed on Nova Scotia Power ratepayers (read-all of us) has served to shine a light on the rather dim Liberal policy toward Efficiency Nova Scotia.

When Andrew Younger took office as Energy Minister, the folks in the department wasted no time in pulling out the Power Point presentation on the merits of ENS. Apparently the newly minted Minister nodded in appreciation and quickly began the thinking of ways to back pedal on his party’s election promise to remove the surcharge on our power bills and send it over to Nova Scotia Power.

Andrew is no dummy. I suspect he may have seen this coming. I mean really, you could almost envision the pre-election napkin scribbling. Everyone hates that damn surcharge. Everyone hates Nova Scotia Power. Let’s make them pay it. Perfect! 

But there’s a problem. For a party that has railed against the monopolistic nature of NSP, giving them the bill for what acts essentially as their only competition, doesn’t make a lot of sense.

In spite of all the smiling, happy people standing behind the information pamphlets and CFL bulbs at Home Hardware, it’s snappy website and slick advertising, most people in Nova Scotia still remain largely in the dark about the benefits of ENS and its importance to improving power rates over the long-term.

I normally don’t agree with Chronicle Herald columnist Ralph Surette on much (If anything) however in his latest screed in Saturday’s paper he rightly points out his disagreement with what he called the Liberals “whining” around Efficiency Nova Scotia.

The Liberals policy on ENS in the last election was wrong-headed and poorly thought through. I said so at the time and maintain it may have been easy to sell the idea of eliminating the premium charged on power bills and shifting the burden of ENS on to Nova Scotia Power books, what they didn’t explain was how this would be recouped by NSP and the problems it would create for the agency.

It was a dumb promise at the time and is still a dumb idea that Energy Minister Andrew Younger will spend the next year or so trying to figure out how to back away from without looking like a complete idiot.

Efficiency Nova Scotia is a very good idea. It’s a good use of money. It empowers and benefits consumers and it should serve to eventually keep power rates in check through the simple laws of supply and demand.

lt has also been an abject communications failure. In spit of spending nearly 4 million dollars a year in marketing and communications ENS remains a very simple idea, poorly defined. I would be surprised if more than 1 in 10 people in this province could explain what Efficiency Nova Scotia is designed to do, in spite of the fact that everybody who rents or owns a property in this province forks over money every month to keep it afloat.

Granted, ENS got off to a rocky start when Premier Rodney MacDonald appointed Heather Foley Melvin to set up the entity as CEO of Conserve Nova Scotia. Ms. Melvin was a political lightning rod who had run MacDonald’s leadership campaign and had a brief tenure as Rodney’s Chief of Staff.

Her appointment to head Conserve Nova Scotia was widely regarded as blatant patronage and in spite of her abilities and the validity of the Conserve Nova Scotia purpose, most people didn’t care much about WHY we were doing this and saw the body as little more than an unnecessary arm of government flogging expensive light bulbs and programs people neither wanted or understood.

I will admit, I was one of them, but I took their free LED Christmas lights.

When the NDP took power, they saw the value of Conserve Nova Scotia but also saw the need to re-brand, re-tool as an arm’s-length body and re-sell the idea. Efficiency Nova Scotia was born. Giving the top job to Allan Crandlemire, a bureaucrat from the Department of Energy, probably didn’t help distinguish ENS from government, however that might have been a good time to tell people exactly WHY it should exist.

I will give the folks at ENS marks for trying. When I was hosting my radio program I was approached several times to have people on the program to try to explain the benefits of ENS programs. Donald Dodge appeared a few times. Generally, people just called in to say why they were pissed off about the surcharge on their power bill but occasionally some of the people who had actually taken advantage of the ENS programs added their testimony.

I never got the sense the message was getting through. Eventually, it came to the point where ENS offered to let me go through a home audit process and then report back the findings, and savings on the air. Presumably my audience would then believe. I was laid off before getting the opportunity to testify myself, but suffice to say, I became a believer.

In theory, appealing to “what’s in it for me” as a communications strategy makes sense. Tell the story in such a way that individual homeowners would see how they can benefit from this 70 odd million dollar agency. Unfortunately, “I’m from the government and I’m to help you.” is what people were hearing.

Here’s what I see as the problems.

First, most people think ENS is a part of government, siphoning off money on behalf of NSP. It isn’t (In spite of the fact that former bureaucrats are running the show.). It’s an arm’s-length, not-for-profit with a mission to save consumers money. Really.

Second, the micro approach isn’t working by itself. So, maybe it’s time to look at public policy and the common good. After all, isn’t that why people accept their responsibility to pay taxes?

So in an effort to try to validate the 72 million dollars or so being siphoned out of our pockets every year to float this boat, I will try to explain in the simplest of term why I believe ENS is, as Martha Stewart would say, a good thing.

  • The people of Nova Scotia waste a huge amounts of electricity. Inefficient, antiquated technology, combined with leaky buildings, siphons off literally billions of kilowatt-hours of wasted power every year. If we save this energy, we don’t have to pay for it. ENS provides the evidence that its programs have saved Nova Scotia collectively nearly 68 million dollars in energy in 2013, and that number is growing…quickly.
  • If we save it, we don’t have to generate it. if we don’t have to generate it we reduce demand. If demand is reduced, cost may not immediately retreat, but we will avoid the cost of building unnecessary power generation capacity and having it downloaded upon us down the road.

Case closed.

As for the Liberals silly idea of shifting the cost of ENS over to Nova Scotia Power, I’ll simply quote Catherine Abreu of the Ecology Action Centre. As she eloquently put it in an interview with CTV News, “Efficiency Nova Scotia is at this point the greatest competitor Nova Scotia Power has in this province…We can’t hamstring (Nova Scotia Power’s) ability to operate as a business, and taking away half of their profits to pay for their largest competitor would do just that.”

Regardless, Efficiency Nova Scotia still has some important communications work to do. ENS has lots of glossy promotional material, complete with “fun facts” and those happy, smiling, stock photo people generously populating their website and annual report. The problem is, while trying to say everything…very little is getting through.

Most folks only see the 5 bucks tacked on to their power bill and wonder why they have to pay it..

In one of their smarter moves, ENS hired away former Atlantic VP Leanne Hachey from the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. She has proven herself at CFIB as someone who can crystallize an idea in the public consciousness. Her concise messaging on the URB ruling is the latest evidence of this talent. So there is some hope here.

Given the latest flailing around by the Energy Minister on this file, I suspect the light bulb is beginning to come on in the Liberal caucus office that their back-of-the-napkin election policy on ENS was a bit dim.

Expect something new in the spring.

Oh…and a bit of advice directly to Efficiency Nova Scotia, stop sending me those letters every month saying how efficient my house is…it’s a little creepy.

Groundhog Day, starring you and me.

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Yes, I know it’s not for another 10 days.

Groundhog Day with Bill Murray remains one of my favorite films. Maybe it’s because I spent a few years as a TV weatherman at the CBC and understand the vacuous, repetitive nature of the job, or perhaps it’s because of the film’s important message about occasionally applying some critical thinking to our perspective on life.

The plot of the movie has our narcissistic weatherman, Phil Connors, off to Punxsutawney to cover the annual Groundhog Day goings on. He then finds himself locked in a time loop, forced to relive the same day over and over. Eventually our hero examines his priorities and makes changes.

After reading some of the latest offerings generated by the provincial Liberal communications machinery I’m beginning to feel like Bill Murray, opening his eyes as the clock radio flips to 6:00, Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” fades in and the announcer prattles, “Okay campers, rise and shine…don’t forget your booties cause it’s cold out there today.”

Re-examining the obvious is only marginally better than the previous government’s practice of stumbling over the obvious and deeming it a complete surprise. My question, what does this government still not understand about our population decline and lagging economic indicators? How many more studies are required?

For more than 10 years, labour market experts have been calling for measures to deal with our declining labour force. I distinctly remember attending one of those facilitated “world cafe” type brainstorming exercises in 2004 at SMU dealing with exactly this issue.

The principal take-away from that discussion? If Nova Scotia does not quickly address the declining population and labour force, any hope for an economic turnaround will evaporate.

This isn’t rocket science. If jobs can’t be filled due to a lack of people, there isn’t much hope that businesses will choose to locate in Nova Scotia to grow and flourish. A declining private sector tax base is bad for everyone.

Statistic Canada released its latest Labour Force Survey last week and hopefully the Premier and the folks at Finance are deeply concerned. While the Canadian picture is nothing to write home about, Nova Scotia’s outlook is downright bleak.

Stats Canada Labour Force Survey January 10, 2014

Stats Canada Labour Force Survey January 10, 2014

In a recent piece in the Nova Scotia Business Journal’s by John Soossar, Premier Stephen McNeil outlined a “to do” list addressing our serious labour force, employment and economic issues.

There’s not much meat here, but the bullet points were as follows;

  • Increased immigration.
  • An emphasis on assisting existing Nova Scotia businesses both large and small.
  • An examination of what government is doing to grow the economy and how things can be done differently to improve the outcome, including offering supports and incentives for small businesses through term loan guarantees.
  • Examining the Canada-European Union Free Trade Agreement to determine the opportunities for Nova Scotia and ensuring that the province is “first in the door.”
  • Tackling youth unemployment by acknowledging that young people want to go and experience other provinces “but ensuring we have something for them to come back to.

These are all nice thoughts. But beyond the reference to the CETA there is absolutely nothing in this that we didn’t all didn’t wake up hearing 10 years ago.

Immigration remains a problem because of broken fundamentals in this province. If someone is moving to Canada, they have a choice of where they want to live. Many are entrepreneurs and they will choose to go where they are most likely to succeed.

Retention rates of immigrants in Nova Scotia during the 90′s were deplorable. Of the few that came, over half of them left. The numbers are a little better because of some government and community efforts in the past decade but the overall result still remains poor.

Premier McNeil says he will push to have the cap on immigration removed by the feds and added, “Our job and my job as premier is to push the message that immigrants are not taking our jobs. They are employing Nova Scotians and enhancing our province.”

As much as everyone should be pleased the Premier understands this, it’s not Nova Scotia residents that need to be sold on immigration, it’s the immigrants that need to be sold on Nova Scotia.

Immigration can’t be fixed with messaging or government knob twiddling. The fundamentals must be addressed and addressed now. How many more “examinations” are necessary to have the completely obvious sink in?

In a nutshell…

  • We pay among the highest personal income and corporate taxes in the country.
  • We pay the highest consumption taxes in the country..
  • We pay among the highest power rates in the country
  • We pay the highest workers compensation premiums in the country.
  • We have been paying the highest municipal tax hikes and service fees in the country.

Immigration is only one small piece of this puzzle, the remainder of the Premier’s comments are extensions of a list of reasons not to move to Nova Scotia. Want to help small business and encourage people to move to here and invest?

Try fixing the fundamentals first. They don’t need “examination”. They need fixing. Create an environment for entrepreneurship in this province and we’ll all be better off.

Otherwise it’s just another day of rolling over to hear Sonny and Cher

“They’re Filling Their Pockets with Dead Teenagers and Broken Families.”

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Prescription drugs are now one of the most serious problems facing our youth. High school students have full access to a broad range of pharmaceuticals. Ask Amy Graves.

Concerta, Oxycontin, Valium, Vicoden, Ritalen, Clorazipam, Ativan, Dilaudid are all available locker to locker. Codeine cough syrups mixed with Starburst or Jolly Rancher candies are in vogue these days.

On the illegal side pot is always available. Sometimes hash. Acid is more seasonal. MDMA, Cocaine and Crystal Meth are available on request.

For boomers, drugs and high school is not all that peculiar. Sometimes I think some perverse pride is taken by our generation in introducing recreational drugs to our culture. Smoking pot and hash was a rite of passage. For the more adventurous, there were more serious drugs, LSD, Cocaine maybe even Opium or Heroin. All had varying degrees of impact.

Many just stumbled through their illegal drug experience, some kept their pot and hash smoking, others struggled with more serious addictions.

From a public policy perspective, we waged our war on drugs, filled our prisons and made some people very, very rich. Against a backdrop of government regulated alcohol, cigarettes and gambling, the hypocrisy of our approach is now breathtaking.

Recently, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has been given the task of selling the new Liberal Party vision of legalised marijuana. This “evolved” thinking he is espousing makes the case that legalisation and taxation will somehow reduce usage among young people and provide a lucrative revenue stream for government. Presumably this will be a plank in their next election campaign. The Canadian public will have their opportunity to make up their mind on this issue.

I don’t agree with the Liberal position and feel Trudeau’s political opportunism may in fact throw the babies out with the bong water. The answer lies with decriminalization, education and addiction treatment.

Like alcohol, there is a need for personal responsibility, but above all we have a responsibility to help young people move away from potential dependencies, not simply incarcerate those who are profiting from abuse.

If we are to use that reasoning, every doctor and pharmacist in the country could carry some level of accountability for this problem.

Legalization a la Colorado is rich with messaging that does not square with appropriate adolescent development and mental health priorities. This is, after all, a mental health issue. Unless the current government understands that addiction, not crime should be the focus of drug policy, we will continue with this fool’s battle.

I’m not suggesting marijuana is an addictive substance in the league of cocaine, crystal meth, heroin or opiates, but within the context of current adolescent cultural norms, it can lead to behaviours which are increasingly destructive.

Smoking a joint is not a big deal. Smoking a joint, then popping a few ADHD meds, an opiate and an alcohol chaser IS a big deal. This is more often than not the cocktail being offered up.

Recently I had a chance to watch Matthew Cooke’s thought-provoking film “How to Make Money Selling Drugs.” My son, who is well aware of the dangers and temptations of the street also watched it…and had some valuable insight.

The film deals with the profiteering that has resulted from the “war on drugs”, something which is quickly becoming regarded as one of the great public policy failures of the last 50 years.

While it is a sidebar to the greater issue of illegal drugs, his 15-year-old perspective of the proliferation of pharmaceuticals in high school was enlightening.

“They’re filling their pockets with dead teenagers and broken families.”  he said.

Perhaps those writing and filling the scripts…and those manufacturing them, should look at what they are doing through that lens.

If You Don’t Vote, I’ll Shoot This Dog.

shootdogIn January 1973, National Lampoon ran the above picture on its cover with the caption, If You Don’t Buy This Magazine, We’ll Kill this Dog. It was powerful, dark and hilarious.

Most people feel this is the period when National Lampoon began to hit its creative apogee. It was a wildly popular cover and that issue of the magazine remains among the most coveted by collectors.

So what does this have to do with voting? Well, perhaps we just need to get a bit more creative to get people to the polls. No, I’m not suggesting threatening to shoot the dog. I’m suggesting a referendum on compulsory voting.

Yesterday, Corporate Research Associates released an interesting tidbit from their Atlantic Quarterly®  indicating over 60% of Atlantic Canadians are either mostly or completely opposed to mandatory voting, while 36% think it’s a good idea.

For most politicians, I figure that’s pretty much a deal breaker. If 6 in 10 people are against the idea…then so are they.

I say phooey.

The Australian model.

Many of us in Nova Scotia are only an ancestral conviction or two away from settling under the Southern Cross. Culturally and politically we and the Ozzies are not that far apart. Aside from being worried about ice storms rather than wild fires, most of us could share a beer and find our democratic values fall pretty closely in line*.

(*Although you will note Australians are markedly not nearly as warm to the Queen as we are, which I believe has something to do with all that 19th century penal colony exile and what not. For my money, exile certainly was a better option than the death sentences for cutting down trees or stealing rabbits doled out under The Bloody Code, but I digress.)  

In Australia, voting is compulsory.

After every election the Australian Electoral Commission, will send a letter to all apparent non-voters asking for a valid and sufficient reason for not voting or, in lieu of an acceptable excuse, to fork over a $20 fine.

If the voter can’t provide a good reason or doesn’t pony up the 20 bucks, then it goes to court. If found guilty, the voter gets $170 fine plus court costs and could even get a criminal record.

The Australians like to say about 95% of the people turn out…but 10% of people aren’t registered, and according to Wikipedia about 6% of the votes aren’t eligible so the real figure is probably closer to 81%.

Regardless, it’s certainly better than our record: Federal 2011 – 61%, Nova Scotia 2013 – 59%. This after Elections Nova Scotia bent over backwards to make voting easier. The only thing they didn’t do was show up at your house and hand you the ballot and a pen. Oh, wait a minute...they would do that if you asked them to.

There are lots of reasons given for not voting. People say they don’t have time, they’re not interested, they can’t support any of the parties because they’re all the same dirt bags…and so on and so on.

There’s a serious problem with that attitude. A considerable amount of blood and treasure has been expended on maintaining the right to vote. We just don’t seem to appreciate the fact.

The Australians on the other hand seem understand this principle. Maybe Mel Gibson was just more compelling in Gallipoli than Paul Gross was in Passchendale. Whatever, but by not allowing people to ignore their right and responsibility to vote, the Australians are honouring the sacrifices made by the people who died in the name of democracy and self-determination.. Those sacrifices were real and significant…and horrible.

Honouring those sacrifices should not be restricted to showing up and standing quietly for an hour at the cenotaph once a year. Voting isn’t just just a right, it is a primary responsibility of citizenship. Dammit. (Stomps foot)

Three years ago I had the privilege of attending a citizenship ceremony in Ottawa. If you ever want to be reminded of some of the values this country stands for and the rights and responsibilities given to each of us as Canadians, turn off Don Cherry and drop into a citizenship ceremony. It makes singing Oh Canada feel pretty good.

So…if our downward spiral into apathy toward voting continues, I suggest we give compulsory voting a shot. Even with 36% support as indicated in the CRA poll, the case can be made to draw up regulations similar to those in Australia.

If we are to take our electoral results as a baseline, in the recent NS election 56% of eligible voters cast ballots with the Liberals picking up a majority mandate to govern by receiving 45% of the popular vote. That’s only a total of about 25% of all eligible voters.

If, as indicated by the CRA poll, we have numbers that would extrapolate to 36% of eligible voters in agreement with the compulsory voting, it’s a slam dunk. Okay…maybe not good logic, but why not have a binding referendum? A direct vote, right here in the birthplace of parliamentary democracy in Canada.

Here’s the idea.

  • All eligible voters must register at least 90 days in advance of a provincial election. This has the added benefit of providing more accurate, current lists for Elections Nova Scotia.
  • If after a defined period following Election Day, Elections Nova Scotia does not receive confirmation of a ballot either cast or spoiled, a letter is sent to the responsible voter to provide a suitable explanation or pay, let’s say, a $50 fine.
  • If neither an explanation or the payment is received by ENS, the file is then forwarded to Service Nova Scotia for collection.
  • Until funds are received the voter is ineligible to receive government services such as motor vehicle registrations, marriage licences, birth certificates, deeds etc. (My guess is people would take the time to vote…just sayin’)
  • Proceeds from fines would be used to fund the once-an-election court process, Elections Nova Scotia expenses and/or streamlining of voting processes. In other words, those people who choose not to vote, for no good reason, would subsidize our elections.

So…let’s have the referendum

If voters disagree with the idea, they can show up and vote against it.

Oh the irony.  

The Anonymous Comment Section revisited

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This is not a new idea. In fact, I wrote this blog six years ago.

At the time I’d been thinking about putting an anonymous blog on the Internet, wrote this and then realized I was simply feeding into exactly what I was criticizing.

It felt hypocritical…and a little stupid.

I stumbled over this missive this morning. The piece originated from a particularly bad moment I had reading the comments section under a provincial political story in the Chronicle Herald.

The comments I read made me angry.

After three years hosting talk radio I think I now have a better appreciation for the value of public opinion. Everyday I enjoyed hearing people sound off on news stories. While I certainly didn’t agree with all our callers, I took the approach that everyone who called had the right to express their position provided they were reasonably respectful and didn’t  wander into territory that would threaten our broadcasting licence.

We also asked that people give their name. Just their first name, but we felt that would help people take some ownership of what they were saying. I also could challenge them if I felt their opinion was offside or particularly unfair.

This is what continues to irritate me about the anonymous comments section on newspaper and other publication’s websites. I truly feel it is in some ways responsible for the diminishing tone of public discourse.

Recently, the New Yorker ran this piece on The Psychology of Online Comments which makes the case that comments enrich the reader’s experience and allow us as readers to interact more deeply with the subject matter. Or do we just care more about what we think than what the writer thinks?

In any event, below is the blog I wrote some six years ago…and didn’t publish.

For the sake of transparency and context, at the time I was working as an organizer for the PC Party of Nova Scotia. I suppose I was a little sensitive at the time to the horse-whipping, deserved or not, Rodney MacDonald and the Tory government was taking at the hands of the CH and its “commenters”.

So my apologies in advance to my colleagues…I was feeling a little pissy. Oh and please excuse the Conrad Black-isms. I was hoping to sound smarter than I really am.

I’d be interested to know if you think anything has improved since then in the overall tone of the paper and the value of the anonymous comments section.

My son asked me tonight what I liked about grade five. He was sitting with his pencil poised to answer his “Question of the Week” for school and I must admit I was stumped.

Even with Jeff Foxworthy’s homage to new dimensions in torpidity “Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader”, I admit there was nothing I could remember about the fifth grade that stuck with me in any meaningful way. I’m hard pressed even to remember my fifth grade teacher. I’m sure they were another of the public education system’s finest. If you taught fifth grade in Tsawwassen, British Columbia in 1970, one of your students was clearly not paying attention. Fortunately we are probably paying your pension.

I bring up grade five, Jeff Foxworthy and the public education system in the same paragraph because I finally succumbed to reading the “comments” section in the Chronicle Herald.

The Herald, for the uninitiated, is arguably the most cynical, negative newspaper in Canada. Without any competition in the province, this curmudgeonly stain on the fourth estate spreads its message of economic and political doom and gloom from Meat Cove to Tusket without benefit of a single mainstream critical body to challenge its authority. Sad.

That’s not to say there aren’t a few bright lights glimmering through the sludge. Managing editor Dan Leger seems to maintain some sense of dignity about the profession and occasionally has a flash of brilliant prose. Marilla Stephenson appears aware of what is ACTUALLY happening (or at least she guesses better than most) and from time to time Stephen Maher manages to shine a light in an already illuminated crevice of Ottawa.

I would however like to take this opportunity to note that Pat Jollimore, the new editorial cartoonist can not sharpen the pencil of those who’ve shared that page. Given time he may develop but his ideas are sophomoric and rather stupid. It feels like they have hired a junior high student to write political editorials.

It isn’t so much the personnel of the paper that I take umbrage with, it’s the overall tone. Politics in Nova Scotia has been a horrid cesspool of influence peddling in years past and perhaps this “tone” is just an unjustifiably long hangover from a period when newspapers should’ve pulled down politician’s britches and given them a good caning just on principle. But for the love of God people, can we give the poor wretches who throw themselves at the mercy of the electorate a break for at least long enough to attract some decent talent.

Emboldened by a two year journalism degree the “enlightened” (those who would never immerse themselves in the dark side of the political arena) provide commentary or “reportage” on those who are struggling to manage our listless bureaucracy. They do so with with at least some level of civility.

Delve below the line in the “Comment” section and there lives an ignorance almost beyond comprehension. This is the hunting ground for the adult participants on Jeff Foxworthy’s show. Political nescience has penetrated into a deep, unexplored abyss.

These comment sections are “moderated” on the Herald website, presumably by some “moderator” whose job I would liken to licking cat food tins clean at the waste recycling plant. If the stuff that is published is the stuff that makes it through this filter, what mind numbing twaddle must be deleted.

Here’s a challenge I put forward to anyone who wants to make anonymous comment on political stories in the newspaper. Stop. Relax. Think for a moment. Think that your opinion about another individual may have consequence.

Let them ask themselves, “Would I if given the opportunity voice the same opinion face-to-face with the individual I’m criticising?

Let them ask themselves, “Do I know what the f*&k I’m talking about? Have I spent more than 10 seconds thinking about this issue or doing anything to make life better for the people around me by moving this issue forward?”

Let them ask themselves, “What am I doing to improve the life of those in my community in regard to this issue or is there something I can do other than prattling off like some benighted twit in the comment section underneath a story on the Chronicle Herald website?”

It’s good to know the Herald values the opinion of its readers, but someone should let the editors at the paper know that the value of those anonymous bits of catharsis is questionable at best.

Ten second blurbs from indignant partisans and putzes with an ax to grind adds little or nothing to the public debate.

Free speech is our beloved right in this country, but let’s not devalue it to the point that “free” means worthless.

Do you think anonymous comments sections have value?  

Nova Scotia’s Ashley Smith

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A tad inflammatory?

That was my response when I first heard Brenda Hardiman invoking the spectre of the Ashley Smith debacle with her daughter Nichele’s plight at the hands of the Department of Community Services and the RCMP.

Ashley Smith’s dreadful experience,of being sucked into the federal penal system and her ultimate death, stands as one of the great failures of the “system” to appropriately deal with mental health issues.

Now, after watching Nichele’s story begin its painful, slow spiral into absurdity, I’m not so sure Brenda isn’t understating this.

So why isn’t the newly minted Liberal Minister of Community Services Joanne Bernard speaking about this file?

I listened with interest this morning to hear the Minister talk to Don Connolly on CBC’s Information Morning. I was hoping the Minister might be questioned about the protocols in place to manage those coping with intellectual and cognitive disabilities who are being handcuffed and dragged out of residential care facilities and into the criminal justice system.

No such luck.

It’s not like the CBC newsroom was unaware of the story. Tom Murphy spoke with Brenda Hardiman on Friday’s Info Morning about the upcoming weekend demonstrations.

How about one question to the Minister responsible?

The focus of this interview with the Minister was the previous government using a little budgetary slight of hand to push 40 million dollars worth of spending into another calendar year. Yeah, it’s an interesting story, but it’s also two weeks old and it’s already been explained.   

The Nichele Benn story has been festering for nearly a year. Last March, (then) DCS Minister Denise Peterson-Rafuse promised she would be speaking with (then) Minister of Justice Ross Landry about Nichele Benn because she said changes were needed, there was a gap in the system…yada, yada, yada.

So after a weekend of demonstrations, television news coverage and a front page story on the Herald website…nothing from the Minister. No summarized briefing notes…no speaking points…zip.

The only reference to people with disabilities was a passing comment about Premier McNeil’s commitment to the ” Transformation of Services for Persons with Disabilities” and how they “are absolutely dedicated in moving forward with that road map”.

Awesome. It’s good to see that only 10 weeks into the job, Madam Minister has a handle on the BS boardroom jargon of government.

The Department of Community Services and the Department of Health and Wellness are responsible for providing care for people with disabilities in this province. There are a variety of institutional facilities and smaller care options to care for those who are in need.

The people who work there have a tough job. It really is God’s work. They require patience, compassion and ability. You can be sure finding the right balance between security and care is difficult.

If you’re not aware of Nichele Benn’s full story, you might like to read this Herald story. In short, Nichele is living with cerebral palsy, epilepsy and organic brain disorders. She has violent outbursts.

Last April on Maritime Morning I spoke with Brenda Hardimann about the difficulty she was having with placement of her daughter and the protocols used to deal with Nichele’s occasional outbursts.

We spoke on several other occasions last year as Brenda’s frustration with inaction from DCS continued to grow.

Nichele is now being warehoused in a Lower Sackville facility. Sunday, Nichele had to show up at the local RCMP detachment for fingerprinting. Criminalized. Just one more indignity, one more stupid chapter in this colossal failure of DCS to fix the problem.

Nichele’s story is not unique. Patients from the Forensic Unit in Burnside with histories of violence are transferred to mixed care facilities inadequately staffed to deal with the sort of potential outbursts one might reasonably expect. Staff receiving these patients have to hire temporary security guards. Not really a permanent solution.

Is the Benn case simply the frustration of staff who are not properly supported? If facing violence from a special needs patient, is calling the police the right strategy? Is that really the kind of care we want to offer people with special needs in this province?

As I mentioned in a earlier blog, the Brad Wall government in Saskatchewan is currently implementing a strategy to make that province the best place to live in Canada for people with disabilities. They are consulting with the people who use, administer and interact with the system, citizens and patients alike, to ask what changes are necessary. They are doing something other than drawing up a “road map” in a vacuum.

They are also separating social assistance and disability benefits as two distinctly different areas. Perhaps this is the most important change to note. It is a philosophical shift not just some bureaucratic tinkering.

We in Nova Scotia have a long way to go to become the best place to live in Canada for people with disabilities. We have work to do just to avoid being one of the worst.

The road map for people with disabilities in Nova Scotia should not lead to jail.

A piece of unsolicited advice for Madam Minister…look after the Nichele Benn file, then book a ticket to Regina. You can ask for Mark Docherty.

2014…a few odd thoughts on making Nova Scotia better

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As we head into another year, I thought I’d add a few ideas that have been clattering around in my head that just might make Nova Scotia a better place to live.

Some are old, some are new, some could be done tomorrow, others need either money and/or time to implement. I’d like to hear if you think these are things the new Liberal government could look at to improve our economy and the lives of the people in our province.

Finance Minister Diana Whalen must give a clear picture of the state of the provinces finances for those who don’t hold Masters degrees in public finance and accounting. While better than some previous efforts, the latest financial update proved once again that government officials and politicians struggle to communicate public finance, especially regarding the relationship to our debt. The Chronicle Herald’s Bob Howse did an admirable job of outlining this in his opinion piece last August. Surely to God with the battalion of communications staff the province has on the payroll, voters can be given better access and insight to the decision-making process than is now provided.

Nova Scotia should aim to be the best place to open a small business in Canada. According to the CFIB’s latest Nova Scotia Business Barometer®, twenty-five per cent of owners now say the state of their business is ‘bad’ versus only 35 percent who say it is ‘good’. There are a number of battles being waged in this province by small against government. This includes poorly thought changes to Workman’s Comp, an inability to streamline the apprenticeship process or get a handle on workplace safety issues.

High taxes and unnecessary red tape also create an environment that drives small business away. Attracting big employers to set up shop may make great headlines but small business remains the backbone of the provincial economy. Nova Scotia Business Development Program is a good start…promote it aggressively, create a better environment for entrepreneurs and then get the hell out-of-the-way.

Meaningful reductions in the size of the public spending cannot come soon enough. If this is done by eliminating revenue (read: lower taxes) and forcing balanced budgets, then so be it. The Harper government came under great criticism for its reduction of the GST by 2 points, eliminating billions in federal revenue. This left Finance Minister Jim Flaherty with the daunting challenge of balancing a budget without the additional windfall of consumption tax.One can argue the merits of the GST versus other forms of taxation, but in the end it meant there was less cash floating around Ottawa to spend.

Government spending in this province has grown from 6 billion to over 10 billion in the past ten years. Feel better served by government? Unless meaningful measures to restrict spending are enforced, the public sector will continue to balloon.

One small way to adjust this continued siphoning of money from the pockets of people is allowing Atlantic Lottery Corporation to grow a robust off-shore online gambling business and begin the reduction and replacement of localized gambling revenue. While it’s a voluntary tax, it is none-the-less emptying the pockets of Nova Scotians for little or no net benefit.

If we are indeed going to accept that government should profit from gambling, then let those gamblers come from other jurisdictions feed the beast. Constrict local gambling revenues, especially VLTs and allow offshore betting under the ALCs “Responsible Gambling” protocols.

Set defined timelines for the twinning of major highway arteries.The previous government’s efforts at de-politicizing the paving and highway infrastructure growth process was a step in the right direction. If plans are in the works, let the Minister responsible know what’s going on so they can answer direct questions about when work will begin on important arteries throughout the province. Then get the earth movers moving.

Set clear timelines and reporting structures for the creation of a universal medical information system in the province. It is perhaps the most critical piece of the puzzle to cut costs and create greater efficiency in the medicare system. Reducing the number of Health Authorities to cut unnecessary administrative cost is useful, but unless everyone gets on the same page with the transfer of information this restructuring will be a dogs breakfast.

The Department of Community Services requires a significant rethink. As the third largest cost behind Health and Education, Community Services delivers programming that is essential to those in need. Lumping disabilities in with social welfare blurs the line between providing a hand up to those temporarily in need and those who rely of government access to quality of life.

In Saskatchewan, the Brad Wall government has created a disabilities strategy which is actually consulting with those who live with cognitive, intellectual and physical disabilities. They are also separating disabilities initiatives from social welfare to make sure those with challenges are afforded proper housing, care and dignity.The Saskatchewan mantra is to be the best place to live in Canada for people living with disabilities. We should challenge that ideal.

On the really wacky side, what harm could there be in examining the establishment of a freeport or free economic zone in this province. Want to generate tourism traffic and local economic activity in a poor area? Want to attract multinational companies? Giving up a small part of tax revenue would be greatly offset by international traffic and spin-off benefits for surrounding communities. Who knows, maybe it could be in Freeport…mmm, maybe not.

So as we head into 2014, perhaps we can kick the can down the road toward a more prosperous and compassionate Nova Scotia.

What do you think?