POLITICS

Nova Scotia Liberals return to legislature as first anniversary approaches

09/24/2014 02:41 EDT | Updated 11/24/2014 05:59 EST
HALIFAX - It's been a year since Stephen McNeil led his Liberal government to power in Nova Scotia on promises to reduce spending and centralize health-care administration.

As the legislature returns Thursday with a throne speech, government finances and health care are expected to dominate the political debate.

Critics and political observers say there's a pressing need for McNeil to abandon what has been seen as a cautious approach as the province's economy shows few signs of coming to life

David Johnson, a political scientist at Cape Breton University, said the Liberals are still enjoying the benefit of the doubt from a public that realizes it will take time to turn the province around.

However, he said it's still an open question where the government plans to go as it approaches the first anniversary of its election on Oct. 8.

"Over the next year we will get a sense of whether this government can actually tackle not only the day-to-day management issues, but the long-term strategic direction of the province," said Johnson.

He said many of those answers could well wait until the spring budget when the Liberals are expected to lay out plans to significantly cut into the province's $274.5 million deficit.

Barbara Emodi, an assistant professor of communications at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, said the fall legislative session will be key after the government spent much of its first year clearing up old business and commissioning studies and reviews on a range of issues from taxes and education to health and the electricity grid.

"It's one thing to buy yourself time by appointing a lot of committees but then you've really got to act appropriately when you hear back from them," said Emodi, who previously worked as a caucus communications director with the NDP. "I think they are in danger right now unless they do something soon."

McNeil dismisses suggestions his government has been slow off the mark and is simply buying time through studies.

"We've been looking to build a strategy over the long haul," said McNeil. "Most Nova Scotians recognize that's what any responsible person would do and that's what any responsible government would do."

McNeil said the government's move to reduce the number of health authorities from 10 to two will be the major focus of the fall session. Related legislation will also be introduced on bargaining with health-care unions.

"This session really is about reshaping the delivery of health care, making sure we can afford the cost to government when it comes to labour," he said.

MacNeil won't reveal many other details about the session's agenda but he said the recent decision to ban hydraulic fracturing will be set in legislation.

Progressive Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie said the province is no further ahead a year after the election and his party will focus on the government's inaction on the economy after the Ivany report. It warned in February that Nova Scotia is headed for an extended period of economic decline unless population and economic trends are reversed.

"The Ivany report didn't say here are things to study," said Baillie. "It said here are some things to do and we are going to hold them (the Liberals) accountable for not doing them."

Emodi said the province's poor economic performance could provide Baillie and the Tories with the opening they need to establish themselves as a credible alternative — something she said they haven't done to date.

The economy will also be a theme for the third-party NDP, which will question the impact of the government's restructuring plans on health care, said interim party leader Maureen MacDonald.

While MacDonald concedes the party is rebuilding following an election defeat a year ago that was "difficult to take," she said the seven-member caucus is experienced enough to make a difference.

"Having been in government only strengthens our ability ... we know what the possibilities and the constraints are," MacDonald said.

Pollster Don Mills said the New Democrats are largely preoccupied with an internal debate on whether to stay on the centrist course adopted by former premier Darrell Dexter or return to the traditional labour-based roots of the party.

"That debate is ongoing and will be ongoing within the party until they pick their next permanent leader," said Mills.