By: Janet Whitman
HALIFAX: Nova Scotia’s next premier says he’ll stay the course in combatting COVID-19, but veer away from his predecessor by making economic growth “more inclusive” and taking bolder action on climate change.
“It’s an evolution in maximizing where we are,” Iain Rankin told The Reporter a few days after winning a three-way race to take over from Premier Stephen McNeil. “We have an over-performing economic position. Now it’s about capitalizing on that position to focus on wellbeing.”
With the pandemic putting a spotlight on those left behind, the government needs to take “a good hard look” at policies and work with community representatives to make changes, says Rankin, who’s from Mabou and grew up in Timberlea.
“It’s going to take difficult conversations,” he says. “Some good work is underway that needs to be accelerated. It needs to be part of everything government does. All of our institutions need to be looked at… to ensure people from all communities in underrepresented groups have a chance at opportunity to succeed.”
Addressing that inequality is one of four priorities for the soon-to-be premier, along with tackling climate change, coming up with a strong economic growth plan and dealing with the lessons learned from the pandemic in the health care system, particularly in long-term care.
Rankin will officially take over the office in the coming weeks, making the 37-year-old the province’s youngest premier after former Inverness MLA Rodney MacDonald.
The Timberlea-Prospect MLA says his biggest challenge will be ensuring the pandemic is managed with a robust supply of vaccine, while also mapping out a strong economic growth plan.
He’s been briefed by the province’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Robert Strang, and his team. They and their federal counterparts have signaled to him the supply of vaccine will be adequate, he says.
The low number of COVID cases puts Nova Scotia in an enviable position.
“We didn’t have to have a full shutdown in the second wave,” says Rankin. “We can leverage the position we’re in (by) making key strategic investments to help grow jobs.”
To help build his economy-boosting plan, Rankin will be enlisting business leaders for an economic growth council.
“It’s a commitment I made to help bring in private sector expertise to ensure we’re maximizing our comparative advantage in the province,” he says.
Choosing the council members is next on his agenda once he puts together a new cabinet, says Rankin, who did stints in management with self-storage outfit Dymon Storage in Ottawa, Premiere Self Storage in Burnside and Halifax-headquartered developer Armco Capital before entering politics in 2013.
To address the province’s projected $789-million deficit generated by the COVID shock, he’ll be looking at all departmental spending. “I also think it’s time to provide relief for people who need it.”
Nova Scotia’s two big highway twinning projects underway with funding from federal programs will continue, but future projects aren’t a priority, says Rankin. “Not every area requires twinning to improve safety.”
Government should focus as much on helping traditional sectors to compete and modernize as it does emerging sectors and high tech, he says. “They’re all equally important for economic growth.”
In recognition of the blow Northern Pulp’s shutdown delivered to the province’s forestry industry, Rankin says he’d like to expand the program rolled out last fall when he was Lands and Forestry minister to use locally-sourced wood chips to heat six public buildings.
“There should be more of those projects because it does help sustain the sector,” he says. “And it’s good for the environment because it helps advance ecological forestry, which is dependent on being able to find markets for those low-value forestry byproducts.”
Rankin, who campaigned on a plan to take bolder action on climate change, offers a similar stance to on strip mining and aquaculture as with forestry.
“There’s a process to be followed and consultation needs to be rigorous – and communities should have a say on resource development.”
Efforts will continue to buoy the quality of life and attract new people to rural communities, Rankin said in between meeting in Halifax with his new transition team.
“There already are (population) increases in every part of the province since the pandemic hit,” he says. “We have to maximize what’s happening naturally with in-migration and government help with strategic infrastructure in those areas (such as) active transportation, which will help create those livable communities.”
On the question of attracting and retaining doctors in the province, Rankin says community-based recruitment efforts are part of the solution. Growing the province’s collaborative care centres also will help with access to health care, he said.
“The other piece that’s emerging now is leveraging new technology and existing technology, Telehealth. Extending out virtual care, so people don’t necessarily have to physically see a doctor, allows for more patients to access primary care when they need it.”
Rankin says he’s not yet met with representatives from Nova Scotia Power and its parent Emera Inc. to hammer out his plan to stop burning coal at the province’s four coal-fired plants a decade ahead of the province’s previous 2040 target.
“They have a scenario plan for 2030 that takes transmission upgrades,” says Rankin. “We’ll have to find ways to make sure it’s the best affordable plan for ratepayers at the same time.”
His aims to boost Nova Scotia’s renewable energy use to 80 per cent by 2030, a jump from about 30 per cent currently.
Climate change “is not only an existential threat to humanity, but there are economic opportunities when we bring on renewable energy and enhance the work to move toward net zero buildings and electrified transportation,” he says.
He’s committed to offering electric vehicle incentives, backing for electric bikes and wants to make it mandatory for commercial buildings to have charging stations. The provincial fleet of vehicles will be moving toward electrification, he says.
He’s staying on the same path to combat COVID.
“I think not politicizing it and showing that Public Health has a key role in what the most appropriate steps are with restrictions, with policy and with vaccine rollout is very important and will continue,” he says. “Following the lead of Dr. Strang – I think he’s articulated this well – we need to be quick to shut down when we have an issue and slow to start relaxing. That’s the cautious approach, which I think proved to be the right choice.”