1. Stephen McNeil’s future head bump

Stephen McNeil. Photo: Halifax Examiner

“I have every intention to be seeking a third mandate,” Premier Stephen McNeil tells Keith Doucette, reporting for the Canadian Press:

Two months after the Liberals took office in 2013, they forecasted a $481-million deficit, largely after deciding to book $280 million in pension obligations. By last September’s budget, the government estimated a slim $1.3-million surplus, following a surplus of nearly $150 million for fiscal 2016-17.

The modest surplus was delivered to a large extent on the back of contract strife with public-sector unions, including teachers and health-care workers.

There have also been challenges to the health-care system, including persistent family doctor shortages, as the government moved to amalgamate the province’s nine health authorities into a single administrative unit.

McNeil and his Liberals won election largely by making some dubious promises about controlling the price of electricity. In office, he has made a fetish of controlling the deficit, an issue that the public badly understands, but McNeil came off looking like he was taking on the evil public employee unions, and in some circles that made him look strong and resolute.

His current popularity collapse hinges on the doctor shortage. McNeil and his absurdly large and overpaid PR team should have been able to manage the public image aspect to the doctor shortage, and even spin it to their advantage, but McNeil’s own hot head short-circuited that possibility.

There are four long years before another election will have to be called, and anything could happen. World events (another global financial collapse, Trump ditching NAFTA, a meteor strike…) that have no obvious Nova Scotia connection could overwhelm us. McNeil might tumble out of his bathtub, hit his head, and begin channeling Xenu. Justin Beiber might decide to move to Nova Scotia and run for the PC leadership (OK, I’ll predict that last one won’t happen)…  Point is, I’d be foolish to try to predict the course of events leading up to the next election.

I will predict this, however: McNeil’s own hubris will determine his fate, and some sort of Shakespearean drama involving loyalty and his inner circle will play out.

2. Why are Right Whales Dying in the Gulf of St. Lawrence?

The recent spate of deaths of right whales, mainly in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, has been perplexing even to the scientists studying the whales, and the deaths are even harder to explain to the public at large.

But a group of high school students — Cape Breton Highlands Education Centre/Academy Grade 12 students Kiera Doyle, Alex Conrad, Becca Clark, Campbell Hart, and Sophie Blondin — have put together a remarkably understandable and accessible primer on the issue.

The students learned how to use Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software from their teacher, Bruce Miller, and then created a “story map” called Why are Right Whales Dying in the Gulf of St. Lawrence?

The students first map the whale deaths, as follows:

Then, they explain the migration habits of the whales, and make some suggestions for why the whales are appearing in the Gulf of St. Lawrence — climate change probably plays into it, but there are geologic similarities between the waters of southeast Nova Scotia and the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and:

Some scientists are proposing that the dispersal of the right whale population is not in fact moving north to the Gulf of St. Lawrence at all, and rather that more whales are being found in this area due to the increased searches and studies being conducted there.

The students then take their whale death map and overlay it with a map of shipping lanes:

They explain:

In the image, green and red lines represent major shipping lanes through the water. Dark blue areas represent where different types of ships occasionally travel. Although the right whale deaths are not along the main lanes, the whales die along the areas where some ships still travel. These areas are also where many fishermen travel through and set their traps. Additionally, it is possible that the whales are hit in the shipping lanes and then drift with the currents. Of particular concern are two ferry routes that are very close to where the whales were discovered.

The students go on to analyze how fishing gear affects the whales, and conclude:

After analyzing the whale migration patterns, their diets, and the locations of the whale deaths, it was determined that the root cause of death in almost all cases was fishing and/or ship related. Climate change and changes to the ocean and environment are thought to be causing the migration of copepods to colder waters, which, in turn, leads to the migration of right whales to the GSL where most deaths are recorded. This climate change must also be limited as much as possible, but more immediately the tightening of fishing and shipping laws is necessary so the deaths can be reduced and possibly even avoided altogether. This will not be such an easy task, because it may disturb people’s livelihoods, such as fishermen; however, what is certain is that we need to make changes now, before this problem brings about the extinction of the entire right whales species.

Congratulations to the students.

3. ’tis the season

This is a slow news time. Back when I worked for other media companies, that meant I had to write “year in review” stories and then “the year ahead” stories. That always annoyed me, so now that I’m my own boss, I don’t do either. Better to relax and leave you readers to your own devices than to go through the motions.

I do have one story I’ve been working on for a few weeks, and between the eggnog-drinking and gift-wrapping and chestnut-roasting and sleigh-riding, I’ll try to finish that today.

Otherwise, we’re in semi-hibernation mode. I’ll have another short Morning File tomorrow, and El Jones may have a holiday story for Saturday, but then, unless something dramatic happens, we’re off until Wednesday.


No public meetings this week.

On campus

No public events.

In the harbour

5:30am: Floragracht, cargo ship, arrives at Pier 30 from Baltimore
6:30am: Atlantic Sun, container ship, arrives at Fairview Cove from Liverpool, England
11:30am: NYK Atlas, container ship, sails from Fairview Cove for Dubai
3:45pm: Bess, car carrier, arrives at Pier 27 from Southampton, England
5:30pm: Atlantic Sun, container ship, sails from Fairview Cove for New York
11pm: Alice Oldendorff, bulker, arrives at National Gypsum from New York


Santa is creepy.

Tim Bousquet is the editor and publisher of the Halifax Examiner. Twitter @Tim_Bousquet Mastodon

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  1. There is no way of knowing where whales are hit by vessels and we don’t know who owns fishing gear wrapped around a whale.
    The shipping map data is from marinetraffic.com. Check out the data in the Persian Gulf, the Singapore straits, south Indian Ocean, Chinese waters and the English Channel.

  2. One simple remedy for some of the whale deaths is one that no one will take. Close the crab fishery.
    Why not?

    Money. It is always all about money.
    When nature comes up against economics, nature always looses.

    1. A similar problem with the South Shore student and her straight pipe research. The politicians fear the vote loss of dealing with these sticky issues. If only these bright students could vote…

  3. Tim, you assert that McNeil’s “current popularity collapse hinges on the doctor shortage,” but you provide no evidence to back that assertion up. If you’re basing what you say on the latest CRA poll, that evidence is thin indeed.

    According to CRA, McNeil scored 30% on the leadership question in May, the month his Liberals won their second majority government. In its August poll, CRA put him at 34% and this month, he scored 28%. But those last two results are within the polls’ margins of error, so it’s not possible to say whether McNeil gained or lost popularity.

    in the latest poll of 800, fully 19% answered “don’t know” while another 9% preferred none of the leaders. Therefore, this poll is based on the stated leadership preferences of 576 people. A poll with that sample size carries a margin of error of plus or minus four percentage points. I checked, and the August poll had a similar margin of error (3.9 percentage points).

    So the August result looks like this for McNeil: 38-34-30; the December result: 32-28-24. In statistical terms, that’s hardly conclusive proof of a collapse in popularity.

    As a general rule, small sample sizes like these do not produce conclusive results since percentages overlap. For example, it’s just as likely that in the August poll, McNeil’s popularity was soaring at 38%, while in the latest one, he was way down to only 24% — a big collapse indeed! But wait, the polls also show that in August, he may have been down to 30%, below the 32% he scored this month. “McNeil more popular than ever!”

    Yes, lies, damned lies, and statistics.

    1. Bruce,

      You say that “it’s just as likely that in the August poll, McNeil’s popularity was soaring at 38%” but this is a common misunderstanding of a margin or error. All points within a margin of error are not equally likely, and the most likely “true” value is right in the middle – i.e. the survey result.

      Margins of error given for polls are usually based on 95% confidence (stated as “19 times out of 20”) so a 4% margin means there is a 95% probability of the value being within +/- 4 points (and a 5% probability of it being further off). But if you calculated a 90% probability it might be around 3% – i.e. there’s a 90% chance the true value is within 3 points. An 80% margin might be 2%, etc. So while it’s true that statistically all we can say is the value is likely within 4%, not all points in that range are equally likely.

      It’s also good to remember that the margin of error only measures the likelihood of the result being duplicated in another identical survey. It does not account for any errors or biases in how the survey was conducted or the sample was selected.

      1. Jamie,

        You’re right, perhaps I shouldn’t have said “it’s just as likely” and should have said instead, “it’s possible within the poll’s margin of error.” In fact, I’d say that given the sample size and the resulting four percentage point margin of error, this poll tells us very little about any changes in McNeil’s popularity. In August, CRA placed him at 34% and in December at 28%. Does that mean he suffered a six percentage point decline, in effect, a collapse in his popularity? No because those percentages are middle points within fairly wide ranges that overlap.

        I’m glad you point to other uncertainties about polling. One that is crucial, but that journalists don’t pay any attention to is the response rate. Polling is based on random sampling, but every time someone refuses to participate or simply doesn’t answer the phone, the pollster must call another number which takes away from the randomness of the survey. Also, there can be bias in the kinds of people who do agree to answer polling questions. Someone like me who sits at home all day and has lots of time to talk on the phone is much more apt to have his opinions represented than other, busier people.

        Given recent well publicized polling failures — Calgary mayoralty race, Clinton/Trump election — journalists need to be cautious about drawing conclusions from polls. I’d hesitate to say anything about McNeil’s popularity based on these ones.

  4. RE; Students/Whales/Stephen McNeil.

    Thanks for highlighting the work of these obviously bright and engaged students. Behind every successful student is a committed and inspiring teacher – in this case, Bruce Miller, I’m willing to bet that the work done by these students wasn’t all done within their regular class time, which means that Mr. Miller probably donated some of his own (non-contractual) time to the project.

    Since teachers are among the large number of Nova Scotia workers that our premier likes to disrespect, if McNeil had his way, these young people would probably be locked away in a room somewhere learning to code.

    1. Yes – congratulations to these students (and their teacher!).

      Police started using geographically linked data some time go and it paid off handsomely pointing to connections between observations and other geographically coincident information. A great way to pose further questions about what may be happening out there which can explain (and reject) various hypotheses.

      Let’s hope for the whales’ sake that the scientists (and the students) come up with some good testable theories and that the solutions based on those can help the poor animals – and quickly!

  5. Happy Solstice and Children’s Day with appreciation and more toasts. Loved that you titled one File
    “Me and the Buddhists”. Sad to hear Stephen McNeil spouting 4 more years…of hubris, pride and fall…
    Dense but infuriating. “Austerity” tends to engender the bitter.
    All best wishes with your ‘nog. xox

  6. Good research and good analysis of the data on whale deaths. It might not be the whole story, but it points to the main issues and the conclusions are able to be tested. I wish all scientists would write so clearly! Congratulations, Kiera Doyle, Alex Conrad, Becca Clark, Campbell Hart, and Sophie Blondin!