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Nova Scotia’s municipal election campaign is now underway. The United States presidential vote is set for November and the possibility exists that provincial and federal elections may also be happening sooner rather than later. Given that, politics have become the central theme of many conversations. On Wednesday, Progressive Conservative Association of Nova Scotia leader Tim Houston sat down with Cape Breton Post municipal affairs reporter David Jala to talk about Nova Scotia’s political landscape and his vision for a more prosperous province. Houston, who won the party leadership in 2018, weighed in on a number of issues, regional and local, including equalization transfers, public libraries and a possible spring election.
Q: Earlier this week, New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs’ Progressive Conservatives won a majority in that province. There is also a PC government in P.E.I. Is this a good time to be a Progressive Conservative in Atlantic Canada?
A: Premier Higgs is a good friend and colleague of ours. I think he’s done a good job in New Brunswick and I think people recognize that as the results show. I think it’s good for the region. Of course, we have Premier Dennis King in Prince Edward Island and he’s also doing a great job. I think as people across the region start to look they will see that Progressive Conservatives understand the needs of their constituents and can govern. Nova Scotia has been well-governed when PC governments have been in place.
Q: Stephen McNeil is stepping down as the premier of Nova Scotia after a 17-year run as Liberal leader and seven years as premier. How does his pending departure affect your party as it prepares for the next provincial election?
A: My approach is going to be the same. Just keeping working hard to connect with Nova Scotians and work hard to keep getting our message out about what we think is possible for this province. It does change the political landscape. I respect Stephen McNeil’s long commitment to the province, he obviously cares a lot about Nova Scotia and I respect that. But, I think it is time now for us, there are a lot of challenges facing the province but there are also a lot of opportunities. I think this province has tremendous potential and that’s what excites me, that’s what pushes me to keep doing what I’m doing.
Q: What is your assessment of the McNeil government’s handling of COVID-19?
A: Everyone has been impacted by COVID. In the early days when we were first learning about the pandemic, we recognized the seriousness of the situation and we made the decision that we would support Public Health and therefore support the premier because we knew that Nova Scotians needed to know that their community leaders, their elected leaders, were together with one common goal. So, it was an easy decision to do that, to support Public Health and the government.
Q: There is a possibility there could be a provincial election as early as next spring. Given that, how would you describe your party’s election readiness?
A: I don’t know if you ever feel you’ve ready. But, we’re always working to be ready. I have been leader for almost two years now and in that time we’ve put a lot of work in to make sure the caucus and the party are moving in the same direction as for what’s good for this province. Once Public Health lifted some restrictions and told us to get out, with precautions, and enjoy the province, I started to do that. And, I have been touring the province a couple of days a week all summer. It’s been a tremendous experience meeting with Nova Scotians. And part of that is identifying candidates. We’re looking for people who clearly care about their community and want to make a difference. I am happy about the quality of the people who are stepping up wanting to put their name on a ballot. John White in Glace Bay is one of those people and he’ll be our candidate again in the next election. Of course, we have a number of strong MLAs in this area already with Keith Bain, Murray Ryan and Brian Comer. We have Allan MacMaster in Inverness and we have a really strong candidate set for Richmond. So that’s what’s happening across the province. We are getting our slate of candidates done. We will be ready when the election comes.
Q: The last PC premier in Nova Scotia was Rodney MacDonald. He played the fiddle. Current opposition house leader Allan MacMaster is the son of renowned fiddler Buddy MacMaster and cousin of the equally famous Natalie MacMaster. Do you play the fiddle? And if not, why not?
A: (laughs) I don’t play it. I don’t have a musical bone in my body. I used to think I was a good dancer but have since learned that I am not.
Q: The issue of federal equalization transfers has become a hot topic in the Cape Breton Regional Municipality. Many residents believe the CBRM deserves more than the $15 million it gets annually from the province which in turn receives a yearly equalization transfer payment of more than $2 billion from the federal government. What is your position on this matter?
A: There is a need to refresh and renew the relationship between the province and the municipalities. Any time there is a Nova Scotian who feels that they are being left behind by their government it is something I take very seriously, and there is a lot of that feeling around the province, especially in this area where the question is whether Cape Breton is getting its fair share of equalization money. That question eats at a lot of people so it has to be taken seriously.
Q: You’ve pledged to double the $15 million the CBRM receives as part of a memorandum of understanding it has with the province. Do you still maintain that position?
A: Yes, my position is even more entrenched. I am sincere about renewing and modernizing the relationship between the province and the municipalities. The current memorandum of understanding between the province and the municipalities is decades old. The world has changed a lot and it’s time to renew that MOU and talk about things like property taxes, talk about a change of services, talk about how the provinces and municipalities can work together for the benefit of Nova Scotians, of Cape Bretoners. And to show my commitment to that, I would double the payments from the province to the municipalities while a new memorandum of understanding is negotiated. This isn’t a ‘hey, at some point we’ll get around to that’, no, I am saying we are actually going to extend more money to the municipalities. And I think that is incredibly important. That’s an extra $15 million right away for this municipality. Just think of what that could do for this region. It’s our responsibility to look for opportunities to make things better.
Q: Another issue dear to the hearts of many CBRM residents is the need for a new library. Many envision a showcase facility on the waterfront. But Premier McNeil has stated he is not interested in financing a new Sydney library. However, knowing that both Halifax and Truro now have great new libraries, would you support the CBRM in its endeavour to have its own new library complex?
A: Libraries are incredibly important and I see the value it brings to the community. I am a big believer in the library system of this province which has been underfunded for a long time. As premier, I would definitely be working with the municipality and people in the region to find a way to make sure they have access to that type of resource.
Q: What is your favourite hockey team?
A: I am a fan of the Boston Bruins.
Q: What message do you have for Cape Breton residents who feel the CBRM is being ignored by the province of Nova Scotia?
A: I hear them. My message is that I hear them. I understand that the provincial government has a responsibility to make sure that people, no matter where they live in this province, have access to health care, mental health-care services, primary health-care services, long-term care services, education, roads, rural internet, all these things we are passionate about. These are all responsibilities of the provincial government, so again, anytime there is a Nova Scotian feeling let down by their government then I want to hear what they’re saying. I listen to that very carefully. We’re focused on making sure the province is respecting the people of every region and is working closely with them.