Most policies will echo McNeil, but the premier-designate promises more focus on “wellbeing” and the climate crisisN
ova Scotia’s next premier says he’ll follow predecessor Stephen McNeil’s lead in combatting COVID-19, but veer away from his track by making economic growth “more inclusive” and taking stronger action on climate change.
“It’s an evolution in maximizing where we are,” Iain Rankin tells Halifax Magazine, a few days after winning a three-way race to become leader of the Liberal Party and next premier of Nova Scotia. “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 within a couple weeks, making the 37-year old the province’s second-youngest premier, after fellow Cape Bretoner Rodney MacDonald.
The Timberlea-Prospect MLA says his biggest challenge will be mapping out a strong economic growth plan while ensuring Nova Scotia manages COVID-19 with a robust supply of vaccine.
He’s had briefings with the province’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Robert Strang, and his team. They and their federal counterparts have told him the supply of vaccine will be adequate, he says.
The current 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, he plans to enlist business people for an economic growth council. Choosing the council members is next on his agenda, after he puts together a new cabinet.
“It’s a commitment I made to help bring in private-sector expertise to ensure we’re maximizing our comparative advantage in the province,” says Rankin, whose own private-sector experience includes management stints with Dymon Storage in Ottawa, Premiere Self Storage in Burnside, and Halifax-headquartered developer Armco Capital.
To address the province’s projected $789-million deficit (which the COVID disruptions inflated), he’ll review departmental spending. “I also think it’s time to provide relief for people who need it.”
Nova Scotia’s two big highway twinning projects, currently underway with funding from federal programs, will continue, but future projects aren’t a priority. “Not every area requires twinning to improve safety,” he says.
He wants his government to focus as much on helping traditional sectors compete and modernize, as it does emerging sectors and high-tech. “They’re all equally important for economic growth,” he says.
In recognition of the blow Northern Pulp’s shutdown delivered to the province’s wood-harvesting industry, Rankin says he’d like to expand the program he rolled out as forestry minister last fall, using 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.”
To win approval to resume operations, Northern Pulp will have to abide by “current, more modern expectations,” says Rankin, who was among the first politicians to call the pulp mill’s toxic waste lagoons environmental racism.
The former provincial environment minister says he’d be guessing at the likelihood a new effluent treatment system can meet environmental muster. “They have an opportunity to put together a plan that should be assessed by the Department of Environment,” he says. “That process will determine whether or not they open back up.”
Rankin, who campaigned on a plan to take more action on climate change, offers a similar stance on strip mining and aquaculture.
“There’s a process to be followed and consultation needs to be rigorous,” he says. “Communities should have a say on resource development.”
Efforts will continue to buoy the quality of life and attract new people to rural communities. “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.”
Attracting and retaining doctors is also key to that ambition. Rankin says community-based recruitment efforts are part of the solution.
He hopes growing the province’s collaborative care centres also will help with access to health care. “The other piece that’s emerging now is leveraging new technology and existing technology—telehealth,” he says. “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.”
Environmental sustainability is another key feature of livable communities. Rankin says he’s not yet met with representatives from Nova Scotia Power and its parent company 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 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% by 2030, a jump from about 30% 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 promised to offer electric vehicle incentives and 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.
To manage COVID-19, he wants to stick with Stephen McNeil’s science-driven strategy.
“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. [Robert] Strang [Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer of health]… 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.”