The retirement of Nova Scotia’s Finance Minister, Graham Steele, was unexpected — but welcome.
The pressures of working in the political world easily justify the personal reasons Steele offered for stepping back from the cabinet and government.
Hard to imagine, however, that Steele would have cut and run if his austerity project still had a solid chance of success. With offshore revenue dropping, transfer payments coming up for renegotiation with a federal government that doesn’t believe in equalization, and a provincial economy facing deepening stagnation in the face of the intractable crisis of market economics, the odds of a home grown Nova Scotia miracle are even longer than they were in 2009, when Back to Balance was born.
Mix in the growing realization that in an era of economic collapse, austerity is counter-indicated; what better sign-off time for the Nova Scotia’s cutback king?
EI, EI … oh
The late-March federal budget just keeps on giving; every couple of days new revelations of sometimes unexpected provisions tucked into the pages of this massively undemocratic omnibus bill emerge.
May saw the unveiling of two more significant provisions. The Fair Wages and Hours of Labour Act, which required businesses that enjoy federal contracts to pay average wages by local standards, and to pay overtime rates, is a goner, satisfying one of the yuckiest wet dreams of the quietly-influential, anti-labour ‘Merit Contractors’ movement.
That’s one long step backward, but it’s a tippy-toe compared with the massive changes imposed on the Employment Insurance program. This is of particular interest to us as Maritimers, for it is specifically designed to hammer economies disproportionately dependent on seasonal industries, such as agriculture, fisheries, and forestry.
As always with Conservative economic innovation, a dose of exploitation comes with a dollop of anti-democracy — in the case of EI reforms, the abolition of the appeal process for groups and individuals whose claims may have been denied unfairly.
As the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives has pointed out, the Board of Referees and Umpire system is a procedure that actually works. The conflicting evidence that sometimes surrounds being out of work — Was it a firing fair?; Did the worker actually quit?; Is she really out looking for a new job — is prone to highly personal interpretation and bureaucratic confusion, especially with an overworked EI staff. The appeals process, with a labour representative balancing an employer on each Board and with a generous standard for passing vexing cases to the Umpire level, was a necessary if often imperfect protection for those who found themselves out of work.
A necessary protection that sometimes works? In the Conservative world, especially when you are engineering a pro-business power shift, cause to kill it. And so they have.
Bank Profits Get a Pass
Canada’s five major chartered banks announced profits of $6.55 billion in second-quarter earnings. A warm feeling of accomplishment for those of us who provided them with this badly-needed extra burst of capital, no one more than small business owners, who have so much to give.
According to a 2010 Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) survey of more than 12,000 small business owners, big banks regularly act as if small businesses are dirt — and the smaller your business, the more like sub-soil you get treated.
You’d think that the CFIB, armed with this damning data, would take a break from its incessant no tax, no regulation, anti-government caterwauling, and stick up for Federation members where it really matters. That, however, would require placing stark facts ahead of make believe right wing ideology. So, not one peep.
The 20-year Rip-off: “It is Just a Philosophy”
No controversy caught the fleeting Nova Scotia public eye quite as directly as the intersection of household electrical power rate hikes with the annual Emera executive pay and bonus extravaganza.
The proposed rate increases will be at least 3% in each of the next two years, with more to come in 2015. Meanwhile, the annual salaries sucked back by a few select senior managers fell in the high-six to modest-seven figure range.
The political posturing that followed revealed one gem: the 1992 privatization reasoning of then-Nova Scotia Power President (and Conservative heavyweight) Gerald Comeau. When asked if there were any studies that demonstrated the benefits of privatization, he replied, “It is just a philosophy, just an approach to things that I believe in, which I think works.”
This 20-year Nova Scotia Power/Emera rip-off has seen Nova Scotians paying more for less, and annual surpluses siphoned off for exorbitant management salaries plus a guaranteed 9%+ rate of return for shareholders. This is one action that has not come without a swift reaction: a gathering movement to place the generation and distribution of electrical power back in public hands.
A stunningly common response to this initiative has been, “it would be too expensive; Nova Scotia can’t afford it.” Knowing what Comeau’s lack of curiosity cost us 20 years ago, why would we again make a private vs. public determination without actually studying the issue first?
Kudos to the Halifax-Dartmouth and District Labour Council, and to the Cape Breton District Labour Council for forcing this issue back onto the public agenda — where it belongs.
A Month Without Writing about the Herald is a Month Without Writing about the Herald
The month of May was merry in many matters, none more so than the return of progressive Saturday Herald columnist Ralph Surette. Tossed overboard during a re-publishing rights contretemps in 2011 that also cost us the writing of intelligent and readable Silver Donald Cameron, Surette has returned sharp as ever.
No month pondering the Herald passes without its head-scratching moment. In early May, the Atlantic Journalism Awards presented its lifetime achievement award to the late Graham Dennis who, as publisher of the Chronicle-Herald and the Mail-Star, was best known for steering our local dailies deep into their “Worst Newspapers in Canada” phase.