Liberals pass inaugural budget with Iain Rankin as premier

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The governing Liberals wrapped up their first sitting at Province House with Iain Rankin as premier on Monday. (Communications Nova Scotia - image credit)
The governing Liberals wrapped up their first sitting at Province House with Iain Rankin as premier on Monday. (Communications Nova Scotia - image credit)

Premier Iain Rankin's inaugural budget passed Monday night at the Nova Scotia Legislature, capping off the first full sitting at Province House in a year and clearing the way for what could be months of election speculation.

Rankin's government passed several bills focused on his stated priorities of the environment and social equality, although one piece of legislation raised the ire of some people who had hope for the premier's agenda coming into his first sitting.

No legislation this sitting received as much attention as the Biodiversity Act.

A recommendation of the Lahey review on forestry practices, Rankin committed during his leadership bid to passing the bill, which laid out a path the government intended to follow to enshrine biodiversity protection into law.

But for some people, Rankin's environmental credibility took a hit when he made major changes to the bill in response to an industry-financed and orchestrated lobby effort even before the legislation made it to the law amendments committee, where the public has the ability to comment.

Social justice issues

Efforts to address systemic racism and advance equality issues included passage of the Emancipation Day Act, which sees formal recognition of the day the British Parliament abolished slavery, and the Land Titles Initiative Acceleration Act, a bill that will help speed up the process of settling land titles for people living in historically Black communities.

Rankin also appointed Andrea Anderson as the province's public service commissioner, the first person of colour to head the commission.

"I think it's been a productive session," he told reporters recently. "We've brought forward priorities that I ran on around equity, environment and building a strong economic recovery. We brought forward the legislation I committed to in this session. We took some amendments based on feedback, and I think it's been overall a pretty smooth session."

Members of the government have heralded the fact that this year's budget includes an increase of $100 a month for every adult who receives income assistance. This budget was mostly complete by the time Rankin became premier, but he said this was one measure he specifically called to have added to the budget, citing the fact rates are too low.

It's by far the largest increase in the history of the program, although advocates note the gap that remains to pull people above the poverty line in the province remains sizeable.

The wrong priorities

The budget lays out a plan to balance the books within four years, something the Liberals say is possible through the reduced need in pandemic-related spending and a program review government officials will soon conduct.

But Tory Leader Tim Houston said the continued need for support within the health-care system, and in particular long-term care, aren't nearly improved enough with Rankin's budget. The document has money for 236 new beds.

"It's unfortunate that they came out of a session of the legislature and not addressed any of those things," he told reporters.

"I think that same thought process can be applied to pretty much every major issue facing the province. We're not really seeing a lot of vision or getting a lot of confidence that the government knows how to address the issues before it."

NDP Leader Gary Burrill said the sitting was a dual disappointment for the Liberals, first in their changes to the Biodiversity Act and second with the "fiscal foolhardiness" of their plan to balance the budget when so many other jurisdictions are choosing to spend money now to address pressing needs.

"This government has shown itself in this budget to be as unwilling as the McNeil government had been, for example, to make those investments in long-term care," he told reporters, referring to the former premier.

"Three thousand beds needed, a couple hundred being opened. I think this is the same logic that led us to be in the situation where we've got so many hundreds of people looking for a bed."

Hybrid sitting runs smoothly

The five-week sitting was notable as much for the fact it was the first hybrid meeting in the legislature's history, with a minimum number of MLAs in the chamber while the majority appeared virtually in order to adhere with public health guidelines.

Although opposition MLAs had called for such a system last year, it was suggested more than once by the government that it could be too difficult logistically here.

Aside from the 15 minutes former premier Stephen McNeil used to prorogue the legislature last fall, MLAs had not sat at Province House since March 2020.

The smoothness of this sitting showed there was no reason for MLAs to have been away from the House for so long, said Houston.

"We could have done this in the fall, there's no question about that," he said.

Election looming?

In total, the government passed 19 bills. No opposition bills were passed this sitting. Progressive Conservative, NDP and Independent MLAs tabled a total of 117 pieces of legislation, including bills relating to covering the cost of birth control and establishing legislated goals to combat child poverty.

Having navigated his first sitting as premier, Rankin's attention will eventually shift to seeking his own mandate.

Although the premier has been noncommittal about when he might call an election — and has until next spring to do so — MLAs from all parties in the House at times sounded like they were workshopping approaches they might use on the campaign trail.

The three main parties are also busy nominating candidates, with that effort stepping up from the Liberals, in particular, in recent weeks.

Nine MLAs from the governing party are not reoffering, including long-serving members such as Karen Casey, Geoff MacLellan, McNeil and Chuck Porter.

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