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.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Statistics Canada’s New Tourism Data Isn’t Great for NS, or the Ferry

Statistics Canada released new data this month about how visitors arrived in Canada, and it reminds us that as the tourism season winds down and the Yarmouth Ferry operations near a season end it’s time to seek answers to the unanswered questions, many of which probably should have been answered before the season began.
We’ve heard from government that visitor numbers to Nova Scotia are up, and room nights are doing better. This may be true. But new Statistics Canada data reinforces that those visits are not coming from the Yarmouth Ferry.

This is not about whether the Yarmouth Ferry should or should not be funded. As I said in a blog a few months ago (which you can read here) the ferry is a political decision with arguments for and against. You either believe it should be funded on a largely open ended basis or you don’t. I highly doubt people will change their minds on that.

Based on Bay Ferries’ own numbers, it appears possible that the contribution taxpayers will make to the ferry this year will be higher than anticipated because of lower than expected passenger numbers and a contract which appears to make taxpayers responsible for most of the costs associated with fewer passengers.

Tourism landings did trend up in July by 5.8 percent. Year over year however, Statistics Canada says people arriving directly in the province from elsewhere is basically flat. Nonetheless, room nights from external sources are what matter to most operators, and Tourism Nova Scotia issued a release saying that

“Tourism businesses benefited from a seven per cent increase in non-resident overnight visitors (up 23,000) this July compared to last, bringing year-to-date visitation totals to about 1,155,100 visitors, an increase of eight per cent compared with the same period in 2015.”

It’s difficult to compare visitors and room nights (which Tourism Nova Scotia counts, and for which how they are counted changed a few years ago) and what Statistics Canada counts, which is visitors based on their province of entry.

The Statistics Canada data is important when considering the impact of the ferry and airports. Their data looks at how people get to Nova Scotia which is directly related to the ferry’s success (or not) in bringing people to the province. It’s data which shows that automobile visits from the United States are down, both year over year, and in July. Down by a lot.

Statistics Canada data shows that while visitor numbers in July were up by 5.8 percent in Nova Scotia (a good thing) visits from the United States by automobile were actually down a whopping 17.7 percent. Visitors from the United States are up in July according to the data, but the same data shows those people are not coming on the ferry. Before someone asks, I wondered whether those arriving by car on a ferry would be considered non-automobile arrivals by Statistics Canada. They are not. Non-automobile overnight visitors are almost all travel by air. That means visitors from the United States were up in July but they flew, possibly impacted by the new cost competitive Westjet flight from Boston.

It gets worse. In the year to date numbers automobile visits are down by 28.8 percent. Travel from other countries is also down year over year by 6.1 percent.

The totals? For the first half of 2016 non-resident entries to Nova Scotia are down by one percent (basically flat). Yes, people may be arriving through New Brunswick, or Quebec, or fewer people may be buying more rooms. All fine things. Except for what it means for the ferry. The data shows people are choosing other ways to get to Nova Scotia. (Keep in mind here too that Bay Ferries reports passenger loads but it doesn’t break out Nova Scotia resident passengers and others, while Statistics Canada is looking at arrivals by non-residents)

Despite the clear data (using both Bay Ferries data and Statistics Canada data) showing the ferry service has lower numbers than last year, this hasn’t stopped the industry from saying visitation has been heightened by the ferry. I stumbled upon an article where Neil MacKenzie, general manager of the Yarmouth and Acadian Shores Tourism Association (YASTA) seems to suggest this when he says:

“Two-thirds of the people we have spoke to are intending to go to other areas of Nova Scotia,” said MacKenzie. “They are exploring the whole province so it (the ferry) doesn’t just benefit Yarmouth and Acadian Shores, its benefiting the whole province.”

I am happy that Yarmouth and Acadian shore tourism operators are seeing a growth in business. But given the numbers on the ferry are down, its impossible for this growth to be coming from the ferry.What it actually suggests is despite a decline in ferry visitors, marketing efforts by the region are working and drawing people who arrive by air or via New Brunswick.

The ferry has a lot of issues. I considered taking it on two trips to the US earlier this year. On one trip the ferry simply hadn’t started yet. On the second, the cost would have been significantly higher, and the travel time longer, than driving via New Brunswick. I have heard similar stories from many people who would have gone but for the cost and time (time would depend on your destination and your origin). A lower cost however would probably mean a higher subsidy

The government, and particularly the minister and premier, have a responsibility to tell Nova Scotians how they will define success for the ferry project, and what (if any) limits there will be on financial and other support. It’s a basic question. If success to the government is just having a ferry, regardless of cost or passenger load, then so be it, they should say so. With that answer voters can decide for themselves whether they believe it is worth it. It will also force opposition parties to have a clear position on whether they agree with the government or not, and if not, what limits they would put on support for the ferry.