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DON MILLS: McNeil among most consequential premiers in Atlantic Canada

Then-premier Stephen McNeil at a COVID-19 briefing in January in Halifax. Communications Nova Scotia
Then-premier Stephen McNeil at a COVID-19 briefing in January in Halifax. Communications Nova Scotia

I have been quoted as saying I thought Stephen McNeil was one of the most consequential premiers in Atlantic Canada in the last half century. Let me provide the argument.

I have had a unique position during my career to closely track the performance of provincial governments in the region over much of the last four decades.

During that time, I have personally met nearly every premier, as well as presented to the majority of their caucuses. I have monitored 42 premiers from three parties, beginning with the governments of John Buchanan in Nova Scotia, Joe Ghiz in P.E.I., Brian Peckford in Newfoundland and Labrador, and Richard Hatfield in New Brunswick.

I have been non-partisan all my life, never declaring support for one party over another while always acknowledging I was in favour of good governance.

Looking back, there have been a few examples of transformative government, a few incompetent and many examples of competent if not change-oriented government.

McKENNA AT TOP

There were governments that were popular and changed the course of provinces. In my opinion, Frank McKenna was likely the most consequential premier in the region over the last four decades.

He ran a scandal-free government and was largely responsible for the highways that link the cities in the southern part of New Brunswick. In partnership with NBTel, he helped make that province the first fibre-optic internet jurisdiction in the country, creating a call centre industry. He also generated a new level of pride and confidence in the people.

Ghiz deserves consideration for leading his province’s effort to construct the Confederation Bridge, which has transformed the Island’s economy.

There have been other competent if not transformative governments over the years, such as those of Pat Binns in P.E.I. and John Hamm in Nova Scotia, both of which were steady if not particularly Earth changing.

The Newfoundland government of Danny Williams, whose legacy has been tainted by the structural deficit left behind and the financial fiasco of Muskrat Falls, was also transformative in some important ways. Like McKenna, Williams infused the population with a greater sense of confidence driven by the success of its energy industry, which he championed, and the achievement of the second Atlantic Accord with the federal government.

Williams had by far the most popular government in Atlantic Canada during my career, with his popularity consistently above 80 per cent throughout his tenure.

At the same time, Peckford deserves consideration for negotiating the first Atlantic Accord, for championing the initial development of Hibernia, the construction of the Trans-Labrador Highway and the new provincial flag.

CASE FOR McNEIL

Certainly, I would place the McNeil government in the top two or three in terms of meaningful accomplishments over his seven-year term.

It was among the most fiscally conservative governments in Nova Scotia, making it difficult for the PCs to compete. McNeil often described himself as being fiscally responsible and socially progressive. The record supports that description to a great degree.

Like most premiers, McNeil grew into his job, but it could be argued he grew more than almost any other premier in the past few decades. This was particularly evident in terms of his skills as a communicator.

On the fiscal front, there is little question McNeil provided the province with financial stability and sustainability by balancing the budget. To do this, he challenged the public-sector unions in ways rarely seen in Nova Scotia.

By introducing the Essential Services Act, he directly took on the nurses’ union, and with back-to-work legislation he took on the teachers’ union. Both actions were important to balancing the budget, as the costs of the public sector were running well ahead of inflation at the time.

It was an early indication the premier was prepared to tackle difficult issues for the benefit of all citizens.

McNeil understood early the demographic and population challenges facing the province. His focus on population growth, particularly through immigration, helped the economy grow and will continue into the future because there can be little or no economic growth without population growth.

He has received high marks for his management of the pandemic, providing a steady hand during the difficult last year. He was also an emphatic leader during the Portapique tragedy, although his government was way too slow supporting a public enquiry.

He continued the work of the Dexter government to protect lands for future generations, reaching a stated goal of 13 per cent of available lands protected in Nova Scotia.

His two most courageous decisions were the closure of the Northern Pulp mill and the closure of two hospitals in the Sydney area.

In my judgment, the health-care reform decision in Sydney may be his most important long-term legacy for the province. The decision cost McNeil support in Cape Breton. The closure of two aging hospitals, the creation of two collaborative health centres in those communities, the expansion of emergency services at the two remaining hospitals and the addition of long-term beds are still a work in progress. Nonetheless, this will likely become the model for the rest of the province once fully implemented and the benefits better understood by the general population.

THE DOWNSIDE

Despite the successes, McNeil had some less desirable traits. While he deserves high marks for his handling of the pandemic, he trampled democracy in the process. He will have a strong legacy but one tainted by his unnecessary prorogation of the legislature on the flimsiest excuse. This decision was politically beneficial to the premier but not to the public in terms of government accountability.

There is little doubt McNeil’s style was to maintain near-complete control over his cabinet, providing little opportunity for members to develop their public profiles. While he leaves office with high personal popularity, I believe he leaves his party in a weakened position due to his leadership style.

Regardless, McNeil deserves recognition for the many advances made under his tenure and appreciation for his efforts to improve the fortunes of Nova Scotia. My belief is that the province is stronger and in better position to grow as a result of his leadership and achievements. I am sure the partisans will disagree.

Don Mills is the former CEO and owner of Corporate Research Associates (now Narrative Research) and continues to be active in the business community through various investments. He remains an advocate for change in Atlantic Canada using data for such purposes.

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