“We will form a thoughtful, accountable, humble government that gives Nova Scotians hope,” Progressive Conservative leader Tim Houston told a crowd of more than 400 attending the party’s Annual General Meeting at the Westin hotel last night.
Accountable would be good, especially since the current Stephen McNeil government which promised to deliver the most open and transparent government in history has turned out to be so secretive. Its latest moves include limiting the Health Committee to once-a-month meetings and using its majority of MLAs on the Public Accounts Committee to control the agenda and prevent the discussion of spending on mental health services and provincial jails, for example.
“Stephen McNeil tells Nova Scotians they will have to lawyer up if they want to know how much taxpayers’ money is going to the Yarmouth ferry,” Houston reminded the party faithful. “When we asked, and the privacy commissioner agreed, the premier said take us to court if you want to find out how much money is being spent on the management fee for the ferry. Everything this government does leads to one question: what are they hiding?”
While Houston’s sense of outrage played well with the crowd and he promised to make Public Accounts more effective should be become the next premier, he wouldn’t commit to let opposition members outnumber the government side. Here’s what he said during a one-on-one interview with the Halifax Examiner earlier in the day.
The structure of the Public Accounts Committee will be effective and a tool for the opposition politicians to ask meaningful questions. What the actual composition of that committee will be — whether there will be more opposition politicians than government members on it — I don’t know but I am open to that. The difference between me and Stephen McNeil is that when I become premier, I want to be held to account.
That “trust me” thing again. Will it be good enough? Tim Houston is an articulate 48-year-old father of two who grew up in Fairview and attended Saint Mary’s University before becoming an accountant. His father served in the Navy and both his parents were in the audience last night where the demographic was overwhelmingly white and plus 50. Houston has represented Pictou East since getting elected in 2013 and lives next-door to his inlaws. Houston spent a decade working in Bermuda (with Deloitte for part of the time) before returning to Nova Scotia with his family. He admires the leadership style of Rona Ambrose who acted as interim federal leader following Stephen Harper.
Asked what he sees as the biggest challenge to the PCs forming the next government, he quickly identified two areas. The need to sow “hope” in people he says feel “increasingly disconnected from politics” and see no point in voting. And the need to become better known across the province, if he is going to beat Stephen McNeil.
As if to illustrate that point, Houston told a joke on himself after being introduced by Peter MacKay, Pictou County’s former federal Conservative Cabinet minister. As he rode up in the hotel elevator last night, Houston recalled a young woman asking if he was in town for the meeting. As she was getting off the elevator she remarked her husband was a “good friend” of Tim Houston’s. “But I am Tim Houston,” Houston said with a rueful chuckle, acknowledging he’s got work to do on the recognition front.
Houston is also one of three MLAs in Pictou County, where people are deeply divided over the fate of the 50-year-old mill owned by Northern Pulp. His riding includes the Boat Harbour treatment plant which in 2015 was legislated to close at the end of January next year. Hundreds of forestry jobs are tied to the mill staying in business, even if that means piping and disposing of millions of litres of treated wastewater each day in the Northumberland Strait. Hundreds of jobs related to the lucrative lobster fishery on both sides of the Strait could be at risk.
“Northern Pulp is Exhibit A which shows the Liberal government doesn’t understand the economy of this province,” Houston thundered. “Look at the standoff. It didn’t need to be this way. Way back when, when the government introduced the Boat Harbour Act, we introduced an amendment that included deadlines and milestones to make the law stronger. I didn’t understand why the Liberals laughed the bill out of the House. Now I know why. They were hiding the fact they didn’t have a plan and that has brought us to the brink.”
This week, four years since the legislation passed, Northern Pulp filed its Environmental Assessment asking the Province to approve its plan which the company claims will have “no significant impact” on the lobster fishery or the environment. The multinational corporation has asked the government to allow it to keep operating for an additional year while it builds a wastewater system to replace Boat Harbour. Premier McNeil is refusing to extend the deadline. Tim Houston says if he were premier today, he would also refuse to extend that deadline. But Houston is not saying “no, nay, never” as the Irish ballad goes; he is hedging his bets and sounding more like his mentor, Peter MacKay.
“I wouldn’t extend the deadline based on what I know today,” Houston said in the interview. “But as an adult and a listening person, I will continue to listen to any new information put before me.”
The PC leader says he has met with industry and a future without the mill has come up for discussion. “If it closes for any period of time, it will be painful for industry and the transition will be long. But we are a resilient province with good products and I’m sure in time the blow would be lessened.”.
If Houston becomes Premier, the mill might be his problem, next.
Houston has gotten the same reaction from Northern Pulp (Paper Excellence) as have so many others. NP doesn’t want to entertain anything but a pipe in the Strait. This despite the fact that a BCTM process would mean far greater yield, use of a greater variety of stock, less water and energy consumption and significantly less pollution. In the Environmental Assessment submitted by NP, mention is made, with regard to other options, only of the fact(?) that Paper Excellence’s competitiveness would be affected should it go with the BCTM option. No support is given for that curt statement; no mention is made of the jobs that would still be in place should a mill of this nature be operating at Abercrombie Point.
Houston represents Pictou East and he has been a very good MLA- one who does his homework and is responsive to constituents and supportive of them to the point of setting up and personally attending meetings to see if headway can be made on difficult topics. He did not shy away from the need to say something to Northern Pulp even though he was in a competition for the leadership of the party. John Lohr, his caucus colleague and a contender for the Party Leadership, chose another route.
At Public Accounts Houston was the PC star performer; he was dogged in pursuit of precise, complete answers. He should support nothing less than the type of sessions that he was central to when appearing at these meetings. Rightly, the Liberals should be condemned for so restricting Public Accounts.
Where will Mr. Houston stand on (1) fixed election dates? This is a big question; we need fixed election dates! (2) What will be his answers to the mess that our health care system is in? – people without a family doctor; ER closures; mental health services decimated; youth mental health spurned; over-burdened doctors, nurses, lpns; lack of long-term care beds/facilities;…Knowing where the three party leaders are on these topics will influence which way people vote, and we need answers from Houston and Burrill; we have answers from the present government, and we find them in their policies that they have been following.