Man at microphone

If you want to understand the early days of Tim Houston’s new Progressive Conservative government, you might begin by putting your head on a swivel.

  • No rent control extension… Rent control extension…
  • No Black faces at the top of the Office of African Nova Scotian Affairs… A Black face in a hastily created associate deputy minister role…
  • Almost nothing about housing in the party’s health-centric election campaign platform… One scant mention of housing in the government’s first speech from the throne. But then, barely a week later, the announcement of an “ambitious,” “multi-part,” “sweeping plan” to address what it now acknowledges is the province’s housing crisis.
  • No virtual presentations will be allowed at legislature committee hearings… Virtual presentations will now be allowed at legislature committee hearings…

And so it has gone.

Much of Houston’s early flip-flopping is understandable. His party has been out of power for 11 years. There’s almost no one in his caucus who even remembers where to find the key to the cabinet washroom. It was inevitable our new premier will smack up against issues he hadn’t considered, and have to deal with promises that seemed to make sense when he was running for government but make no sense now that he is actually running one.

Many of Houston’s mind-gyrating gymnastics are even encouraging. It’s refreshing to have a premier who can admit mistakes, who can be persuaded to change his mind.

And yet…

There are troubling niggles of same-old, same-old, both within those same yes-no toggle switches and also when you dive more deeply into some of the few issues where Houston has remained steadfast.

Like his plans for locked-in-legislation summer election dates.

Or the old-school way in which he Friday-afternoon, back-doored his way into responding to news about the refloating of the Yarmouth ferry.

We’ll come back to those.

For me, one of the most intriguing aspects of the government’s grand new housing strategy was how little outside consultation had apparently gone into crafting it.

Halifax councillor Waye Mason, for example, told the CBC last week that officials in the biggest city in the province weren’t even consulted about the creation of the government’s centrepiece unelected housing task force even though its work may duplicate some of what the city is already doing.

Mason wasn’t alone. Bridgewater Mayor David Mitchell also told the CBC that, despite a vacancy rate of 1% in his town, “Nobody’s talking to us. We haven’t had a conversation with the province on housing in years. How can you solve a problem if you don’t know what the problem is?”

Good question.

Meanwhile, Truro Mayor Bill Mills questioned the province’s announced intention — again without consultation — to slap a 5% deed transfer tax on out-of-province home buyers (in an apparent attempt to stifle the growth in the number of outside speculators driving up housing prices while throwing up a new obstacle to encouraging wannabe Nova Scotians from moving here). The problem is that most municipalities already charge for the same service. Adding an extra 5%… ? That sort of double-dipping,” Mills says, “could force people to rent and put more pressure on our rental market.”

The deputy warden of Clare worried that the province’s announcement didn’t make clear enough what its new initiatives would mean for local affordable housing initiatives already underway.

And so it went.

What happened?

My guess is that the Houston Conservatives, with their laser-like focus on health care to the exclusion of all other issues during the campaign, arrived in office with no clear strategy to tackle a housing crisis it hadn’t acknowledged or understood.

In the wake of those violent morning-after election day evictions of Halifax’s homeless from their temporary encampments, the new government had to scramble to figure out how to respond.

It wisely hiccup-backtracked on its opposition to extending rent controls, then rummaged around in government archives and previously commissioned but shelved reports for promising schemes and proposals it could adopt as its own.

Who had time to consult or consider a broader plan?

Last week’s ambitious but scattershot housing plan was the result.

Luckily, much of what the government announced last week does appear to offer promise. But — as in its post faux pas efforts to respond to its own lack-of-consultation with the province’s Black community — it also seems clear this is not a sustainable way to run a successful government.

And then, of course, there are those troubling hints of the Houston government to come.

Start with Houston’s seemingly out-of-current-character insistence on his own insistence that the fixed date for future fixed-date elections must be July 15.

  • The government made that decision without informally consulting either opposition party or the all-party elections commission, which traditionally discusses proposed changes to the elections act in advance.
  • Seventeen of 18 presenters at a marathon six-hour law amendments committee meeting last week “passionately espous[ed] fixed election dates that do not fall in the middle of summer.” In what Saltwire columnist Jim Vibert called “the Conservative version of a Chinese show trial,” the government majority voted in united mindless lockstep to send the bill on to the legislature unchanged anyway.
  • In the wake of the government’s announcement, Narrative Research, the public opinion firm, conducted an online poll that showed 93% of more than 1,000 respondents preferred a date in mid-October (the poll is considered accurate within 2.9 percentage points 19 times our of 20).

Instead of responding — as he has on other issues — by backing down, admitting error and moving on, Premier Houston did a Stephen-McNeil-like double down. “There’s a lot, a lot of positives of a July election,” he declared, “and I think that’s being missed, intentionally or otherwise, by some of the people who are opposing the date.”

Blame it on those who disagree? Why?

Perhaps we can find an answer in one of those presentations to last week’s law amendments committee. Jo-Ann Roberts, the former interim leader of the federal Green Party, who is currently writing a book about the state of our democracy, made an intriguing historical point. While just seven of the last 64 provincial elections have taken place during the summer months, the Conservatives won the three most recent ones — including with majorities by John Hamm in July 1999 and Tim Houston in 2021.

It seems the Tories benefit from low summer voter turnout. Voter suppression, anyone?

And then there was Houston’s response to Friday’s — why is it always a Friday — announcement that the CAT, Bay Ferries controversial Yarmouth-to-nowhere ferry, will return to Canadian waters this week to practice entering and exiting Yarmouth harbour as preparation for its return to a “regular” summer sailing schedule in 2022 for the first time since 2018.

As opposition leader, Tim Houston was in the forefront of those demanding accountability for the ferry’s failures, even going to court to force the company to disclose the management fees it received from the province under its secret 10-year agreement with the province.

After his Tories won the election in July, Houston said he wanted to meet with the company and hear its business plan for the five years remaining on its contract with the province.

As premier, however, Houston hasn’t explained what he learned from that meeting — if that meeting even took place.

Instead, in response to the company’s Friday trials-and-training news release, Houston released a bland statement of his own Friday afternoon. “Both parties have a contractual obligation to make sure the service produces the greatest possible benefit for our province,” his office told allnovascotia.com.

There is no definite pattern in any of this yet, but there are concerns.

Stephen Kimber

Stephen Kimber is an award-winning writer, editor, broadcaster, and educator. A journalist for more than 50 years whose work has appeared in most Canadian newspapers and magazines, he is the author of...

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  1. Not to ruin a good story with the facts, but there is no evidence that summer elections depress voter turnout. To the contrary, voter turnout for the 2021 election (held in the summer) was higher than the May 2017 election called by McNeil’s Liberals, and that was despite it being held in the middle of a pandemic. And both previous summer elections which you cited (1999 and 2003) when the Tories were successful, had turnouts about 65%, which is a level we actually haven’t seen since that time. The reality is, voter turnout has just been steadily declining since 1980, and no one has a good, definitive answer as to why.

    I don’t know if a fixed summer election date is the best idea either, but let’s not go trying to blow this up into an American-style voter suppression issue when it’s, at worst, maybe a “not the greatest” idea. Or, given how easy and accessible voting is these days, we could just tell people to forego one beach day to get themselves to a returning office for 15 minutes and vote if the want a say is who runs the province.

  2. I cannot forget when Houston was a new MLA. Jamie Bailee’s favourite barking dog on standard conservative issues. Like the fracking moratorium is destroying business opportunities. Houston led QP with that for weeks- even when it did not generate a single media hit !

    I will judge him on what he does- not the ideological framework he clearly comes out of. But with someone who obviously makes up his mind as he goes- yes, thats better than whet we have had- but….

    And especially when the honeymoon fades… where is that flexibility going to go? And where is that “old” Tim Houston anyway?

  3. Houston advertised his party as Progressive Conservatives. I wish people wouldn’t refer to them as the Conservatives (a PC party taken over and gutted by Prairie Reformers) until their actions prove otherwise.

    I didn’t vote for Houston and yes there have been flip-flops but I would rather that than Stephen McNeil style proceeding full speed ahead with bad policy rather than admitting his mistakes, like almost killing our film industry or the ongoing Yarrmouth ferry fiasco.

    The Tory seats are barely warm and at the moment I’m willing to write off early Tory mis-steps as teething troubles, hopefully to end soon.

    The one thing I will be watching closely about our Premier’s laser-focus on healthcare is whether his solution to all the anticipated expenses is private medicine and 2 tier health care where you will get the best care your money can buy.

    We’ll see.

  4. I’m counting on at least one more Houston “flip-flop” – abandonment of his ridiculous Better Paycheque Guarantee.