Combatting inflation is not 'just about minimum wage': N.S. finance minister

Nova Scotia Finance Minister Allan MacMaster says the government must be mindful of the potential negative effects of raising wages too far too fast. (CBC - image credit)
Nova Scotia Finance Minister Allan MacMaster says the government must be mindful of the potential negative effects of raising wages too far too fast. (CBC - image credit)

Nova Scotia's finance minister appears lukewarm about the idea of raising the province's minimum wage at a higher rate and faster pace than already planned, despite the increasing pressures caused by inflation.

Speaking to reporters in Halifax following a cabinet meeting Thursday, Allan MacMaster acknowledged that people making minimum wage are facing a particular struggle, but he said their employers are as well.

"And I think we, as a government, have to be careful as well about creating uncertainty for employers," he said.

MacMaster said there are many things affecting affordability, including inflation and interest rates. He also expressed concern about what the possibility of a federal carbon tax would mean for affordability in the province, particularly on gas prices.

"There's something that the federal government is choosing to do that's making things worse for people."

Opposition leaders call for action

Carbon tax or no carbon tax, however, Nova Scotia's minimum wage of $13.35 an hour falls well short of what is considered by experts to be a living wage in the province. A new report released this week places that figure between $20 and $23.50 an hour, depending on the part of the province.

The minimum wage is scheduled to increase to $13.60 per hour on Oct. 1 this year, with a path to reach $15 an hour in 2024.

Opposition leaders said that isn't fast enough and $15 an hour is no longer high enough.

"We are in a very different environment than we were a few years ago, where inflation is high," Liberal Leader Zach Churchill told reporters.

"We have a labour shortage and if we are going to compete as a province for workers, competitive wages are critical in doing that."

Michael Gorman/CBC
Michael Gorman/CBC

Premier Tim Houston said the province's minimum wage review committee is scheduled to meet again this fall. Churchill said it would be prudent to see what the committee decides, but he said wages are not high enough in the province.

NDP Leader Claudia Chender, meanwhile, said the government should raise the minimum wage "immediately" and get as close as possible to a living wage.

Chender pointed to a protest on Thursday by some early childhood educators drawing attention to the need for a long overdue raise in that sector as an example of how many people struggle to make ends meet.

"This government is failing to address the cost of living at all and this is a place where they have a direct lever and one that they can pull at any time," she told reporters.

Michael Gorman/CBC
Michael Gorman/CBC

The swift action by the government earlier this year to provide significant raises to continuing care assistants shows it can be done, said Chender, and she accused the government of caring more about "job creators" than workers.

"Of course we need to have a good economy and we need jobs and we need small businesses, but people also need to be able to eat and that should, fundamentally, be our priority."

But MacMaster said raising wages too quickly can result in its own set of complications.

"Government can't solve everything. We don't have enough money in our treasury to fix all of the problems people face. What we must do is be prudent."

'It's not all just about minimum wage'

The minister said government efforts related to affordable housing, reduced child-care fees and an increase in the child tax benefit are all intended to make life easier for people.

"It's not all just about minimum wage. There are many factors, and we've been involved on all fronts."

The public should be mindful of "the job creators" in the province, he said. Government "just dictating to them what they should be paying people" could create negative effects, said MacMaster.

Chender said it is the government's role to set a wage floor and act when that floor is no longer enough for people to make ends meet. In this case, she charged, the government's priority seems to be making sure "their friends are taken care of and don't suffer too much hardship."