About two weeks after his government crossed the halfway threshold of its mandate, Premier Tim Houston shuffled his cabinet and set course with the team he hopes will carry the Progressive Conservatives to election victory in 2025, if not sooner.
This is about the time in a mandate when a government traditionally enters re-election mode, meaning most if not all decisions are considered in the context of what it will mean come campaign time.
In the run up to and during the 2021 election, no issue was bigger for the Tories than health care. The promise to fix an ailing system has been the No. 1 focus for them since coming to power, and will surely be a key issue for voters.
Lori Turnbull, as associate professor of political science and director of the school of public administration at Dalhousie University, said as long as the Tories can demonstrate they’re moving in the right direction on health care, they’re likely to get credit.
“I think nobody expects health care to be fixed, probably ever, and nobody expects health care to be fixed by [the] next mandate,” she said in a recent interview.
“Like, that’s not a real thing.”
Two-headed crisis of housing, affordability
But just like premiers before him, Houston is discovering that when you’re in power, unplanned things can happen that require attention and resources otherwise intended for your primary focus. Think natural disasters or major industries shutting down.
For the Tories, it’s housing and affordability.
They might not have been on the party’s radar during the election, but the two subjects could actually be supplanting health care from its traditional place as the key concern in Nova Scotia.
“Even though [Houston] was elected on health care and that’s how he wanted to frame it, now we have a massive affordability crisis,” said Turnbull.
“Now we have a massive housing crisis. And so he can’t decide at this point that he’s only going to be judged on health care.”
No ‘all-hands-on-deck’ emergency approach
The Tories have proved nimble on health care when they’ve needed to be, changing hospital construction plans to accommodate a growing population and expanding the scopes of practice of health-care professionals to ease the burden on doctors offices and emergency departments as recruitment efforts continue.
The same agility has not been visible so far on the housing and affordability files.
“There isn’t an all-hands-on-deck sort of emergency crisis approach,” Cape Breton University political science professor Tom Urbaniak said in a recent interview.
To be fair to the Tories, they started working on their health-care plan well before they were elected. Housing has been a prominent issue for the NDP for years, but not for the Liberals or Houston and his team.
But it’s the PCs that have been in power for the last two years as the situation has grown in urgency.
‘A time for pragmatism’
Last spring, the Tories extended the cap on rent increases for two more years, but their housing strategies for the general public and students are months overdue and no one can provide a precise date for when either will be released.
Houston has favoured having the private sector and non-profits lead the way on new developments, and has resisted calls to build new government-owned affordable housing in the face of evidence that the government’s current approach won’t result in enough housing.
Urbaniak said the Tories already changed course on rent control, something they didn’t support in opposition and don’t really support now, and similar consideration ought to be given to new government housing.
“This is absolutely a time for pragmatism and not some sort of overriding philosophy,” he said. “You’ve got to grasp for solutions wherever you can find them now.”
Turnbull said such a move would come without the headaches governments sometimes fear when they change their position on an issue.
“If they decided to be more attentive to the housing crisis and the affordability crisis, the fact that they didn’t start off that way, it’s not going to create a political liability for them because people are so concerned with the crisis that we’re in now.”
Butting heads with other governments
A key to tackling the issue will be finding a way to work with the federal government, said Turnbull. With Ottawa recently finding a renewed sense of urgency for the subject, Houston must decide if he will follow the federal government’s lead and cut the provincial portion of HST on rental building projects the way other provinces have.
But there is also the relationship between the province, which holds jurisdiction over affordable housing, and municipalities, which are seeing increased challenges related to a lack thereof, to consider.
That relationship needs work.
Houston bristled last week when reporters asked about concerns from the public and some councils that the province isn’t doing enough on the file.
Rather than presenting a case for his government’s efforts to date or talking about plans to come, Houston took direct aim at the council for Halifax Regional Municipality. The criticism, which followed him saying it was no time for placing blame, was clearly planned — the premier had a list of items he kept referring to as he argued HRM was contributing to the problem.
The miniscule vacancy rates, skyrocketing rents and growing number of people struggling to keep a roof over their heads or finding themselves homeless in this province make clear the size of the challenge facing Houston’s government in the back half of its mandate.
It might not have been a pressing issue for the party when they came to power, but the PCs now have less than two years to show they’re making progress on housing.
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