She has long been one of Halifax’s busiest MLAs, and now Diana Whalen’s resumé includes “Finance Minister” in Stephen McNeil’s Liberal government. Recently, she brought in her first budget, and talked with Halifax Magazine about how she’s settling into the job.
Is the honeymoon over yet?
[Laughs] Let me think…Certainly when you bring in your first budget there’s a sense that you’ve done something on your own and you have more to be accountable for. The first few months you haven’t had a chance to institute anything… I think I have more experience now. Let’s put it that way.
You’re in a position, for the first time in your political career, where you’re a lightning rod for feedback on the government’s actions. How have you adjusted to that?
It’s a very different role. If you’ve been in opposition for many years, it’s great experience but you still have an awful lot to learn. It’s very different when you’re on the government side. You learn a lot about what goes on behind the scenes that we never had a look at when I was in opposition.
What have the biggest revelations been so far?
A lot of it is the change in my routine. I would have spent a lot more time in the constituency office than I do now, because now I have a lot of responsibilities downtown. For me, as a longtime member, a 10-year member, I miss being more involved in the day-to-day of the constituency. You have to manage your time differently. There are a lot of responsibilities as a member of cabinet, a lot of set meetings.
Did your time in opposition prepare you?
I never really understood the process of bringing a budget to the floor of the Legislature. The Treasury Board committee is all-important in that. That group of Cabinet ministers hears the proposals from each department and has to look at what level of flexibility we have. I have a window now on some of the things that are fixed that you can’t really alter, and some of the limitations that we have been trying to cut back. Obviously we would like to get to a balanced budget… That is a commitment of the Premier’s and that’s where we have to go. My big challenge in the coming year will be going through each of the departments and trying to find out where we have some discretion… An awful lot of what government is doing is, by its very nature, fixed.
Balanced budgets are starting to feel like something all parties just have to commit to, before every election. How can voters take this promise of a balanced budget seriously, when they’ve heard that promise from all three parties, many times?
We always have to be aiming at that. Whoever is in government has a responsibility. You can’t accept that we’re going to continue deficit financing, borrowing money every year… Over time, the public needs to recognize that there are things we have to do differently… Getting our provincial house in order was one of the key things in the Ivany Report and I can’t do that without the help of the public… But it’s important for the banks and the federal government to know we’re managing correctly, doing our best.
What will that be your legacy as finance minister: a balanced budget?
[Laughs] I haven’t thought about legacy yet… It’s still early days. But it’s really important for me to be the voice of reason in terms of what we can afford. I hope the public can understand more what the choices are… We’re trying to make choices in the best interests of the province.
Was the financial situation you inherited what you were expecting?
My first update in December showed a really deep deficit—I wasn’t expecting that but there were a couple extraordinary things that came up, and they would have come up regardless of who was in government. One of them was the Auditor General said we had to recognize a big pension obligation in one year, right now. That was almost $300 million… The other part was the very discouraging news that our economy had performed slower than expected in the final numbers from 2012… and suddenly it appears we’re losing $100 million. I didn’t think we were going to be on track for a balanced budget, but I didn’t expect it to be so off. If you look at how the departments were doing, they weren’t that dramatically off… The lesson is that there are a lot of unpredictable factors that can hit out of left field, even with the best-laid plans.
You’re only the second woman to be Nova Scotia’s finance minister. Does that put different pressure on you?
I’ve been in the political realm since I was a city councillor in 2000. I don’t feel the standards are more difficult… I toured around the province and did roundtables with chambers of commerce, and I’ve never felt like it’s been a factor. Often, in different elections in my riding, it’s been all women candidates. People accept my credentials and my abilities.
What’s been the fun parts of the job so far?
I’m really excited that we finally have our February holiday. I’ve been bringing that up since John Hamm was premier. It’s great to be able to do something that will make a little difference in the lives of average Nova Scotians. That’s one of the privileges of being able to govern.