Saturday, December 3, 2016

A War With Teachers - Why?

It’s hard to know exactly what the McNeil government is trying to accomplish with the legislation they will introduce Monday imposing a contract on teachers in Nova Scotia. Even with a legislated contract teachers can work to rule. Only a week or so ago Education Minister Karen Casey said the government was willing to live with work to rule indefinitely. Apparently her definition of indefinitely doesn’t even go beyond the start of work to rule. McNeil and Casey could be setting up a situation where Nova Scotia effectively has permanent work to rule in the province.

Imposing a contract on teachers is a high stakes gamble that may very well walk the Liberals out of power in the province for a long time to come. (The nature of high stakes gambles is you have to accept that it might pay off for them, but at this point it’s hard to see how.) The teachers’ work to rule plan meant students would have been in classrooms being educated. While there would be inconveniences of cancelled Christmas concerts and extra-curricular activities, that is part of a legitimate job action. Honestly it seemed pretty balanced. All indications are people who were going to be impacted by work to rule were largely supportive of the teachers. (This is not to say people necessarily supported every contract demand, but that they were supportive that the balance of fairness was on the side of teachers).

The government has said the work to rule situation creates unsafe schools. They haven’t explained how. In fact, if anything, all the government has done is basically say the teachers are right that there are issues in the schools regarding safety which must be addressed. The government’s safety argument is weak at best on this issue.

By forcing teachers to stay in school, the government is most likely  trying to limit the number of teachers who can show up at Law Amendments Committee as the legislation goes through. They avoid the optics of a lock out. The solution to this is relatively easy for the union. They can call a strike the day law amendments starts and the government may find that even more teachers, students, and parents showing up.

There is no limit to how long the Law Amendments Committee can sit (though it can sit 24 hours a day). So it wouldn’t take much for it to go for days. Predicting the future is difficult, but this seems like a strategic blunder by government.

The government’s action to close schools on Monday for students, but keep teachers in, also does something teachers weren’t doing – making parents angry. All of a sudden my phone and inbox are blowing up with parents and others I had not yet heard from in this dispute. Parents with personal stories about how classroom conditions are negatively impacting their child. Grandparents saying how they can’t recall such issues in classrooms when their children were in school. Students worried about their education.

Maybe the government is trying to turn parents against teachers by having parents blame teachers for not having somewhere to send their children. If that is the plan, they are saying teachers are just people who take children when parents’ go to work, not educators. This is a horribly offensive argument because both early childhood educators and public school teachers are highly trained to do their specific jobs, they are not interchangeable. Neither of them is a babysitter.

Here’s the thing. A couple years ago McNeil was over the moon excited that he had a contract with teachers which would then result in a standard by which all other labour contracts would be set. He had won and he wasn’t afraid to tell anyone. But it was premature.

Teachers voted down the contract and changed their union executive. It seemed to me teacher’s were as mad at their union as anyone else. They didn’t like the process. It certainly wasn’t about money. The promise from Minister Casey to take the Freeman report off the table (something many teachers expressed concern about) was the carrot for ratification. A second contract came and was also defeated. For most teachers it was little different than the first contract. Thing was, in the meantime McNeil passed a bill which in its language includes teachers in a wage pattern. The legislation inflamed tensions and added to the increased vote against that second contract. McNeil was losing the game he thought he had long ago won.

McNeil and Casey have tried to make the teacher’s dispute about money. About greedy teachers. They hope the public will turn against teachers. They have more difficulty making that argument now given the recent Auditor General’s report which questioned the spending decisions of these very people when it comes to education. They also have difficulty because teachers that have talked to me have barely mentioned the money issues. Classroom issues are top of the list. Money being the top issue is government spin.

There are very real issues in classrooms. I support the fact that teachers, and many students and parents, have finally said enough is enough. We need to fix the system. Emboldened by a Supreme Court ruling which seems to say working conditions can be in the contract, teachers want the structural issues fixed. We should all demand this. Education has hardly changed in fifty or more years and yet the world has changed. How people learn has changed. At the same time teachers have more time demanded of them to do non-teaching tasks to allow someone to make a check box in a bureaucratic office somewhere. It makes no sense.

The McNeil government has decided to declare war on teachers Nova Scotia instead of trying to fix what is actually wrong in the education system. We might be in for a long period of work to rule. It’s anyone’s guess where that ends. Maybe some parties stumbled into (and through) this negotiation, but there’s an opportunity to now take this time and agree as a province to fix things for teachers, parents, and most important of all, students. Let’s take it. Imposing a contract will prevent any hope of a collaborative effort to fix education in Nova Scotia.

A Post Script On What Will Happen With The Bill

On Monday, December 5th the bill will be introduced. While many are understandably under the impression that there is a vote Monday, there is not. The legislature has some rules which have to be followed. Here’s my guess. The bill will be introduced Monday and the session will likely be around an hour, maybe 90 minutes. Based on history of this government I expect Michel Samson to go right to 24 hour sessions. Which means Tuesday at 12:01am the legislature will resume, and after some required business and a 1:00am question period, debate will begin. Whether second reading clears Tuesday or not is iffy. If it does Law Amendments will go ahead on Wednesday, if it doesn’t at 12:01am on Wednesday you’ll see opposition business, followed by the completion of 2nd reading. Law Amendments will then fall on Thursday. After that it’s all about how many people sign up for Law Amendments Committee (which will also likely run 24 hours).

With 24 hour sessions (which seem all but certain but could change) opposition and government MLAs will take shifts going in and out of the debate. The chamber will rarely be full, even at procedural votes along the way. (All MLAs will almost certainly be there for the final vote.)

Depending on how long Law Amendments Committee runs and at what point the opposition decides they have made their point on legislation (which they know will inevitably pass) the bill will become law. If there are a lot of people for law amendments then it will pass sometime around Tuesday, December 13th (give or take a day). If not many people sign up for Law Amendments then it could be law by Friday of this week (December 9th).

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Fracking Bill Failure (Response to

The following originally appeared in on Monday, November 14th. It appeared in response to an article which reported the government had not moved on many of the commitments made when the bill on hydraulic fracking was introduced. 

It’s unacceptable that after almost two years the provincial government has yet to publish their definition for high volume hydraulic fracturing for public for comment. Worse still, is the fact the definition gone from coming soon, to having no date in sight. It reflects a disrespect for industry, environmentalists, and all those who participated in discussions on this issue.

When I as the Energy Minister of the day brought forward legislation concerning hydraulic fracturing, early draft definitions were already on the table. Department staff confirmed at the press briefing the final regulations, on not only the definition, but what would constitute research activities in the bill, would be ready within two months for public comment. This was a critical commitment to the legislation moving forward. At the time, I presented to the legislature definitions of high volume hydraulic fracturing from other jurisdictions which staff had sourced, showing possibilities, and demonstrating that similar wording found in the government bill was already in use elsewhere.

Freedom of Information requests show the current Energy Minister was also presented with definitions and options. This information, in full, together with any briefings and notes, should be released to the public now given the unacceptable delays.

There was significant speculation at the time about the reasons for the bill. There were different views (even from review panelists) about whether the legislation respected the guidance of the review led by Dr. Wheeler. The decision was not based on personal opinions of me or staff, but rather was a considered decision premised on three points, in addition to legal advice provided to the department. Those points were: respecting the party’s election commitment regarding fracking, recognizing the position of municipalities that they opposed fracking in the province as represented to the department by the Union of Nova Scotia Municipalities, and most important, recognizing that requirements around consultation and consent or accommodation had not been met with the province’s First Nations. Speaking to many energy companies at the time, it was also clear there was little short or medium term interest in onshore development in Nova Scotia, outside of coal bed methane which remained unaffected by the bill.

Part of the promise of the bill was to get the onshore atlas completed quickly so it could be determined whether commercial opportunities even exist onshore in Nova Scotia. This was critical given the history of dry wells in Nova Scotia’s onshore, and the fact we could be faced with a debate over something which wouldn’t happen anyhow. Now it appears little work has been done on this effort. As well, engagement with municipalities and First Nations about onshore development (and all energy opportunities) was to get underway. The bill would have allowed these discussions to happen knowing nothing would be forced upon anyone given the need to amend or repeal legislation to move forward with a project. These tasks also appear not to have happened.

The failure to address any of the promises of the legislation is a failure of governing. It undermines confidence in the ability of government to manage energy and environmental projects, as well as to live up to commitments made to stakeholders.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Well That Was Unexpected

Watching the returns in the US election last night, I turned the TV off around 1:00am. The race hadn't been called but it was pretty clear Clinton wasn't going to win. Virginia was too close. States like Michigan and Wisconsin were leaning towards Trump. There didn't seem a path to victory for Clinton, or a path to a majority Senate.

As Canadians we seem to have all had an emotional stake in this election. Facebook feeds are lit up with shock. But why are we surprised?

I fell in line with the majority of people who seemed to think Clinton had a lock on the presidency. Even Trump's own campaign team was saying on election day it would take a miracle to win. That miracle happened. Trump took a lot of states he needed by the smallest margins. So much so, it appears Clinton may win the popular vote in the US despite being beaten by decent margins in the Electoral College. You think first past the post is bad, imagine winning the popular vote and losing the presidency. This isn't the first time it's happened to Democrats.

Despite thinking Clinton would win, a few months ago I commented that Trump seemed to be talking like many I hear when I go to the US. I figured he'd win the Republican nomination. To say he spoke like many Americans is a broad generalization and he only won half the vote so his words and actions clearly don't represent everyone. But on planes and in buses, and at meetings and events, the same tones, words, and phrases were often there, even if spoken more quietly than Trump.

Facebook posts ask why people would vote for someone who is clearly a sexist, misogynist, racist, and so many other things you might want to add here. I don't think that's what it was about. I think in many cases, people just didn't care about that. They should have. In fact, I think the words someone uses especially should have been very important in how you want your country represented on the world stage. But people wanted change. There are certain states where any Republican candidate would win over a Democrat. But in states like Michigan, it seems to have been more about fear of trade taking jobs, and feeling the economic recovery is leaving people aside.

The reason this shouldn't be a surprise is because it's not unique to the United States. Brexit was about a fear of outsiders and a fear that international agreements made Great Britain less great. Part of Belgium almost held up CETA because they didn't trust trade agreements.  Denmark may be on the way to doing the same. Fear is also rampant. Two candidates in the Alberta Tory leadership have dropped out complaining of fear based campaigning. In Germany and France, fear of non-Europeans is strong in certain parts of the countries. Former NS Finance Minister Graham Steele wrote online it could happen in Nova Scotia (it is happening here).

So don't view the United States as an aberration. Instead let's look at the root causes of fear - whether of people who are different or trade issues - and try to address them.

Trump will have an ability to make some major changes quickly. President Obama took a lot of actions by Executive Order. These can be reversed immediately should he choose to do so. With a Republican Congress, Obamacare is certainly toast and the appointment of a young right wing Supreme Court judge will be easy. The only tool Democrats will have is the filibuster as Republicans do not have a filibuster proof majority in the Senate.

It's always election time in the US. So the big questions now will be does Trump move ahead on the most brazen promises such as closing the doors to Muslims, building a wall along the Mexican border, and cancelling trade agreements. He made a lot of promises - right up to putting Clinton in prison. But he also said he would compromise. Much of this will require support of the Congress which, while Republican, will be facing its own midterm elections in only two years. Some of the promises will be downright impossible to deliver. If Trump and the Republicans upset or disappoint too many voters, they may return control of congress to Democrats. At that point Trump will have extreme difficulties pushing his agenda. 2018 isn't so far away.

All of us armchair commentators will parse the election results and look for the reasons why this happened. Some will say Sanders could have won where Clinton didn't. That's unlikely. While polls suggest he might have, the reality is polls change when someone is actually the candidate and under greater scrutiny (remember how high Clinton was in the polls before being an official candidate?)

But then maybe the reason for Trump's win is more simple, maybe the election was rigged. Trump did say it was so.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Canadian Press Buries The Lead On Muskrat Falls Story

The Canadian Press published a story yesterday about Muskrat Falls which appeared in some version in most Nova Scotia media. Most of the headlines say Nova Scotia will be getting energy for next to nothing from the project. What should be the main concern to Nova Scotians however, is not found in the headline, but is buried a few paragraphs down the story where Nalcor CEO Stan Marshall reveals he is trying to renegotiate the deal - something which should be of concern to every Nova Scotian:

He says Nalcor is talking with Emera about changing the terms of existing contracts for the Maritime Link, the 170-kilometre subsea cable that will eventually carry electricity from southwestern Newfoundland to Cape Breton. (from Global TV version of the CP story)

To start with, it simply isn't true that Nova Scotia will be getting the energy for free or even nearly free. Nova Scotia is pre-purchasing a block of energy by paying the cost of the subsea cable from Newfoundland to Nova Scotia. Ratepayers in Nova Scotia are expected to see some level of rate increase as a result, something potentially made higher by the deferrals in the government's current electricity legislation. The net increase to ratepayers is hard to know, as there could be increases and decreases in others parts of the Nova Scotia Power business.

Nova Scotia also has the opportunity to purchase more energy from the project at a price determined through a bidding process, but at a price no higher than the hub market price, minus some of the distribution costs. Nova Scotia essentially gets first crack at buying the energy, at a reduced price compared to the market. This is a good deal for Nova Scotians compared to other potential sources of energy, but it is not free. The net revenue to Newfoundland is similar to what they would get selling it to anyone else in advance (the savings to Nova Scotia is in avoiding some distribution costs which don't go to Newfoundland anyhow).

In fact, the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board noted that the price of Muskrat Falls was only marginally cheaper for Nova Scotians than other competing alternatives such as wind. So any talk of changing the deal Nova Scotians have on Muskrat Falls should have already been met with strong and quick opposition from both the Energy Department and Emera. And yet, in some versions of the story, the Canadian Press reported neither responded to requests for comment:

Emera and the Nova Scotia energy department did not respond to requests for interviews. (from CBC version of the CP story)

To the contrary, Nalcor's Stan Marshall says he is discussing the issue with Emera. We should be asking why Emera is even entertaining such discussions.

In October 2013 I was fortunate to become the province's energy minister. One of the first things on my plate (even before the official swearing in) was the Muskrat Falls deal. It was quickly apparent there was no way out of the deal entirely, even if Nova Scotia wanted out. The deal was too far along. There was, however, a chance to make improvements in the deal. Those improvements resulted in more fixed costs and less risk to Nova Scotia ratepayers, as well as clarifying exactly how the energy would be priced for Nova Scotia. The changes were ultimately approved by all parties and signed off by the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board, being made part of the deal through an undertaking by Emera through its subsidiary responsible for the link. I was in Newfoundland for the signing of the final deal and was crucified on talk radio there as being no better than Quebec in the original Churchill Falls deal. You can imagine I didn't feel it was fair, but my job was to do what I could for Nova Scotia ratepayers in re-opening a deal which has largely been finalized.

That there is any talk about changing the deal and costing Nova Scotia ratepayers more money should deeply concern us all. The fact Emera and Nova Scotia's own Energy Department didn't immediately speak out against this, should be equally concerning.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Response to Students For Teachers

I received a letter from a group called Students for Teachers about the current labour dispute. You can read their letter at the bottom of this blog. Also below, you will find a news article from 1990 concerning the Buchanan government education cuts I reference in the letter (some asked a question whether this was truly in 1990 - it was). 

Here is my response:

Dear Students for Teachers members,

Let me say how impressed I am by the quality of your letter, and strength of your arguments concerning the current dispute between teachers and the provincial government. I have been following the work of your group on Facebook and I am heartened by the passion you have shown. Over the past few weeks I have spoken to many of you personally as I have also spoken to many teachers and parents.

I am deeply troubled by the current approach of the government towards teachers. I sit on a School Advisory Committee and I while I recognize some improvements, I have trouble seeing where the $65 million invested in education has gone, as you have rightly questioned. I see teachers at all grade levels having to struggle with a lack of EPAs, and few options to deal with issues in the classroom. In some programs and grades I see the system being burdened by increased curriculum demands without the needed supports.

I did not support the implementation of Bill 148, and I spoke against it at the time and since. I believe the government is working up to proclaiming the bill to put it in force. This will not solve the very real issues facing the education system. Teachers have asked to have included in their contract commitments on working conditions and how education reform will be tackled. While the government claims that this is not needed, it absolutely is. Too many times promises to students, teachers, and parents have been broken. So the time has come to have these included in a contract where the commitments are enforceable.

In the early 1990s as a student at Prince Andrew High School I was involved in student protests when the government of the day (the Buchanan government) cut education and went after classrooms and teachers. Here we are again, 25 years later still having to fight for students, for parents, and for educators. It has to stop.

Please know you have my full support in this effort and I am happy to speak with any of you individually at any time.

All the best

Letter from Students:

Monday, October 3, 2016

Carbon Pricing, Nova Scotia, and Walkouts

Nova Scotia has a problem when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions. Of course both the federal and provincial governments know this. Sometime around 2015 a quiet new unit was created (or expanded) in the provincial Finance Department to begin studying carbon pricing options. People were moved from Environment and elsewhere to be part of it. It’s why I knew. I lost staff to it as Environment Minister. The only reason to do this was because it was known that Nova Scotia was on its way to carbon pricing or cap and trade.

The Premier is right when he says we have done a lot – more than most provinces – in reducing carbon. This shift started under the PCs with the Environmental Goals and Sustainable Prosperity Act and continued with new targets under the NDP. Nova Scotia’s carbon reduction has come largely, though not exclusively from the electricity sector. You have to careful of falling for the Premier’s statement that the cost of electricity increases in this province have come almost entirely from a need to reduce carbon emissions. They haven’t. Even without any restrictions on carbon, Nova Scotia was faced reducing things like mercury, SO2 and NO2 from coal fired plant emissions. Those have come with a huge cost. In fact, Nova Scotia has still not made up for mercury reduction targets and has implemented a bulb recycling plan to try and compensate. The type of coal Nova Scotia Power has needed over the past 10 years or so to meet emission requirements has increased dramatically, and this was on top of the cost of new equipment to capture particulate and other emissions.

Some new “green” energy has been necessary to meet carbon emissions. This is true, though it should be noted that without legislative change, imported energy from Muskrat Falls would not have counted as emission free (and still doesn’t count in some areas of the world).

Despite the work to reduce carbon, if it were not for the closure of some large industries such as Dartmouth’s Imperial Refinery, Nova Scotia would not be closing in on the 2030 reduction goal so easily. As well, the existing plan, while reasonably aggressive at the time, leaves limited room for new emissions resulting from planned LNG plants, offshore development, or any significant economic growth in the province. To top it off, despite the fact the federal government has not yet adjusted the Harper era carbon targets, it appears the existing federal goals for 2030 may not be enough to achieve what was agreed to at Paris. This means Nova Scotia will still have work to do beyond existing targets. Despite that, in the spring session the Nova Scotia government still refused to set targets matching the Paris agreement.

With that in mind, the Prime Minister today announced he was enforcing the option of a Carbon Tax or Cap and Trade for all provinces. He chose two options already in use in large Canadian markets, and elsewhere. It’s not overly surprising. I had a sense when I was in government the federal partners did not feel Nova Scotia’s plans would address the climate targets long term. I was surprised to hear the Premier suggest recently that they might have a side deal with Nova Scotia, but I also assumed he wouldn’t say it unless it was a done deal. I guess he would.

Today, Nova Scotia’s Environment Minister Margaret Miller walked out of the meeting on carbon pricing to express displeasure with the Prime Minister’s announcement that provinces either get on board with a carbon tax or cap and trade.  Walking out is just one of those things politicians do in order to ensure they get a headline back at home. It would have been approved by the Premier, and probably recommended by the myriad of communications people that now occupy a high percentage of offices in the Premier’s office as the best way to get attention back home and be able to say “look, we made a stand”. It worked. It’s the lead story for many Nova Scotia news outlets. Despite that, discussions almost certainly continue between bureaucrats at the federal level and the Nova Scotia government. The reality is if Miller did not go to this meeting with an agreement in hand from the federal government, she would (or should) have known she was not getting one given the vote on the Paris Accord had been announced, and minister’s meetings don’t happen unscripted.

This gets back to Nova Scotia’s problem. Businesses seek consistency between jurisdictions. There was no way for Nova Scotia’s system to be consistent with anyone else because it was by its nature a unique agreement. No matter what happens in the short term, the world will almost certainly move to a system where every major economic jurisdiction participates in pricing carbon, whether through carbon trading or taxation (and yes I know some schemes have been tried and failed in the past). Some of the world’s leading economists have been saying this for years. Shell and BP (as well as other major energy players) already price in speculative carbon prices. In fact, in Paris those companies supported carbon pricing. They admit they do it already in their projects, but won’t say what their estimate is. This includes estimates for Nova Scotia’s offshore projects.

Consistency matters. Many businesses just want to be dealing with the same system in every province, and not different rules everywhere. That’s why the Prime Minister did what he did. (Though I’m surprised he chose two systems rather than one.) Nova Scotia has complained about this very issue when it comes to labour mobility and other trade between provinces. To not understand that argument on this issue is hypocritical.

Carbon taxes and Cap and Trade are unquestionably challenging issues. When I was Environment Minister, the ministers from Quebec and Ontario called me frequently to discuss joining their Cap and Trade plan. A partner in their scheme, the California governor’s office talked to me to lobby for the province to join. Since leaving cabinet I have talked and met with dozens of governments and companies about how to address the targets in the Paris agreement. Carbon pricing of some kind seems inevitable.

Nova Scotia has always been wary. In fact, in advance of the Paris Climate Summit the Premier’s Office was unwilling to even sign on to the Under 2 MOU. This was despite the fact it had been signed onto by many of our trading partners and endorsed by some of Canada’s major fossil fuel energy players as well as numerous companies around the world. Once the Paris conference was done, the end agreement that Canada signed onto was slightly more aggressive than the Under 2 MOU Nova Scotia had refused to sign onto.

Unless there is a sudden change, as it appears is about to happen on the appointment of Supreme Court judges from Atlantic Canada, it seems that the Nova Scotia government will be left to simply stomp its feet and pout, which is basically what walking out of a meeting for the cameras is the political equivalent of. This ignores the real issues Nova Scotia has. Outside of being angry at the federal government, Nova Scotia needs to be part of system that offers consistency to new and existing investors in the province. It also needs to address the gap that may be coming in its carbon reduction targets. As a result, even if the federal government gives Nova Scotia some credit for regulatory work on electricity, it will still have to fill the gap with one of the two systems.

It appears that now means Nova Scotia has to find its way into being part of one of the options approved by the federal government. Of course, don’t think for a second plans haven’t been made to do this. It’s why that unit in the Department of Finance was setup in the first place.