MR. CHAIRMAN: The Committee of the Whole House on Supply will now convene. Before the committee this afternoon, we will be once again debating the estimates of the Minister of Community Services. The honourable member for Dartmouth East has the floor and he has 17 minutes remaining.
The honourable member for Dartmouth East.
DR. JAMES SMITH: Since we last met, there have been some things that have come to light on this budget that are extremely disturbing. I guess it sort of makes sense when you are trying to ferret out a budget.
I said earlier that I feel the Department of Community Services is the heart and soul of any government. How well a government does will be determined in matters relative to the Department of Community Services, the responsibilities of that department that are supported by government. I believe that the Department of Community Services is a reflection of the compassion of a government as well. We know of the initiatives that have taken place, such as the Nova Scotia Youth and Care Conference that has been held here recently, and I want to touch on that in a few minutes.
The minister spent about 25 minutes or so, almost a half hour, introducing his estimates to the committee. There was a lot of emphasis on independence, self-reliance, return to work, transition back to work, return to the workplace. We kept looking through the budget for certain areas that would indicate where these monies would be. I did compliment the government on the commitment to 71 social workers who the minister said would be full social workers.
I could ask another specific question on that, but I just want to move into the area of the changes to the regulations that have come about. In light of the minister's 25 minutes of opening comments and painting a picture - although I think the minister himself admitted as others would that there are some that shall remain dependent on social assistance by virtue of their special needs, but there would be movement. A lot of the budget, from my estimate, is predicated on people moving from social assistance into the job force. I guess that was my concern, Mr. Chairman.
The mood out there in the community is starting to be apprehensive as to where this province is going again; I am starting to get e-mails from across this country saying, what are you guys doing? Nova Scotia was just getting settled down and now it seems to be heading towards an uproar again. I mention that in the recruitment and retention of professional people and trades persons in this province.
Remember back in the days around 1988? Those were our darker days or years in the province when our government had a lot of disrespect across this country. I am really starting to see, I believe, a return to that. No other way is it more highlighted than either through the economy or how we treat people with special needs. That is what concerns me. A member at that time that people would see sitting on an airplane, they were embarrassed to tell the person sitting alongside them that they were from Nova Scotia, the way things were happening in this province. I refer back to the 1980's. I think things have turned around a lot and there is a lot of pride in Nova Scotia now. But we are threatened again.
The Opposition is told by the Premier of this province, well, we are not going to make your job very easy. To heck with you people. That is your job. You can ferret out what you will. Actually, some of the members, in lighter moments, are also saying that direction seems to be also what is applying to the backbenchers, but I don't want to get into that.
I really want to set a little stage here today, if I could, in the few moments that I have, particularly in light of his opening comments. I listened attentively to the minister. I complimented him where I felt it was proper to do so, but changes have come about to the regulations that were made by Governor in Council on April 26th and those changes that have taken place.
The household maintenance allowance of $44 per month is cancelled. Regulation 35 does not apply, and I have a copy of the regulations here. The household supplies allowance of $28 per month is cancelled. That is again Regulation 35, and that is when a home is owned. The transportation allowance of $18 per month is cancelled. Regulation 40 does not apply. The inclusion of the actual costs incurred up to a maximum of $200 for any single costs - and this is the part I couldn't believe in light of the honourable minister's comments last Friday - the inclusion of the actual costs incurred up to a maximum of $200 for any single cost for participation in employment and education programs or rehabilitation programs does not apply. That is Regulation 42.
Now, the mean-spiritednes gets worse. The clawback of wages is increased to 100 per cent from 75 per cent, with the deduction reduced to $100 for married, $50 for single. That is from $200 and $100 respectively, and that is a new regulation. The new Appendix B sets out the new lower rates to apply to new applicants for family benefits. These represent a substantial reduction from the present scale. A single parent with two children will get $102 less per month which is a 9 per cent cut. Existing recipients will be grandparented at the old rates for a period of time. I know what some of the answers are going to be. I can guess them ahead. We will just see what they are and what the responses will be. The regulation changes also allow the director to set a co-pay difference of that by Pharmacare. It is not clear if it is higher or lower; I assume it is to be lower. Also, the limit could be higher or lower than Pharmacare.
Those are just some introductory comments, and I know I don't have a lot of time, but I did also want to bring up a matter and maybe start with a specific question and then the minister might want to respond to the changes in those regulations of why they came sneaking through in the darkness of night, much like the Minister of Health when he cancelled the health boards. These are major changes in a philosophy and a support service to people with special needs, single parents with children, disabled persons. It is major, and I find it difficult to come here and do estimates with this being snuck in the back door before coming to light. If we ceased the Community Services estimates on Friday, then we wouldn't have had this opportunity. We still have some time here, and perhaps the minister can explain how he can reconcile his comments on Friday with these changes to the regulation.
More specifically, is it true, and does the minister have any knowledge, that disabled persons are being told that certain of their medications are no longer covered under the supplemental special needs budget? These were drugs that were never listed on the formulary but were deemed to be necessary for specific persons with specific needs and that they were being covered until today. Is that a policy change? Is the minister aware that people with those special needs are being told that they no longer qualify? Then I guess the one from that would be if not, what would these people do?
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable Minister of Community Services.
HON. PETER CHRISTIE: Mr. Chairman, the question was, is there a change to the medications that are being allowed for people on disabilities? Those medications that are on the formulary list are still eligible for payment under our plan.
DR. SMITH: My question was, those ones that may not be on the list, but were the supplementals for special needs, have there been changes in the eligibility for those? If not, then I am sure people would be pleased. I am just wondering, if we don't have people out working, and we talked about welfare people doing the audits. There are some awfully funny phone calls. I don't know if the minister is aware of the change in his department and some of the messages that are being passed down. This change didn't come about immediately after
this government came in, but it has come in the last few weeks. So we are getting some reports, and I just want to be able to tell people that this isn't happening.
MR. CHRISTIE: To the honourable member, as I indicated before, the drugs that are on the formulary certainly apply and if there are cases where a doctor approves drugs not on the formulary, those will be given consideration and those will be done. It has in the past and we can see that carrying on in the future.
DR. SMITH: I think that takes us back to the special needs medication, that there have been no changes on that, so we will have to reconcile that with what we are hearing. Maybe on a broader issue, I did mention the minister's statement on Friday, his opening comments specifically, and the changes that have come to light on the change in regulations. How does the minister reconcile these changes, particularly those affecting going back to work, or transition periods there, how does that fit in with the overall philosophy of the department now?
MR. CHRISTIE: Mr. Chairman, I guess perhaps I will go back, because the honourable member raised a couple of questions there in terms of the announcement of that. We indicated back a month ago that we were standardizing the rates and we indicated that the rates were going to be a single-tier rate throughout the province and those rates, we have mailed those out to all the people to tell them what is going on.
The member is aware that as we announced that rate, we indicated that the rates that were in existence would stay in existence for the remainder of this budget year until April 1st of next year. We indicated that people on assistance whose rates were less than the new standardized rates would be increased to that new rate. We also indicated that there was a change in the special needs, that people on family benefits had certain entitlements to special needs, but they did not have the full range of entitlements as people on social assistance did and we announced and indicated that all people, be it family benefits or social assistance, on the old rates or on the new rates would be getting a full entitlement to all those special needs. Now, we announced that. I indicated that in my points that I raised the other day and we have been very clear on the direction that we have been going.
DR. SMITH: I guess we are clear as to where we are going and it is not a great direction, but let's hope that there will be some improvement to some things that have been left unsaid.
There was an article in The Daily News on Friday, April 28th, where a spokesperson for the Metro Food Bank said that 40 per cent of people who use the food bank are under the age of 18 and that these people come from wide and diverse backgrounds, but they all have
one thing in common: they and their families do not earn enough money each month to cover all of their living expenses and to eat.
Just so that I can be clear that we are understanding this correctly, is it the understanding then of the minister that with the new applicants for family benefits, you will see a decrease, that a single parent with two children would get $102 less a month; is that the intent of the minister, or am I missing something here?
MR. CHRISTIE: The honourable member's question is, will people see a reduction? What I indicated and what the member has indicated is there is a new rate for people coming into the system after May 1st. The people who were on the rate previous to that will stay on that rate through until April of next year. A single parent with two children would have been $1,124; people coming in under the new rate and having their applications processed in April for May 1st, will be at $1,022. As I indicated, the other part of that is that they will be entitled to an increased amount of special needs. There will be more special needs items available to them under that rate.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member's time has expired.
The honourable member for Cole Harbour-Eastern Passage.
MR. KEVIN DEVEAUX: Mr. Chairman, I want to follow up on some of the questions the member for Dartmouth East was asking of the honourable Minister of Community Services, specifically around the issue of drugs and those on disability who are receiving family benefits. Now, I understand some of the questions and the answer I was hearing from the minister was that there are those drugs that are on the list with regard to ones that are automatically accepted and then there are special circumstances that if the doctor accepts that it needs to be prescribed, that I take it it is on a case-by-case basis that the department will then look at the situation and determine whether or not those drugs will be provided. Is that currently the status? Has it changed? Has there been any regulatory change between yesterday and today or any regulations that have come into force to change those rules?
MR. CHRISTIE: Mr. Chairman, no, there has not been any change. Previous to this there was the drug policy which I indicated to the honourable member for Dartmouth East, that was subject to a doctor's acceptance, and nothing has changed. That is the same today as it was back before any changes.
MR. DEVEAUX: Mr. Chairman, let me just take a different angle on this and I appreciate the minister's answer, because we are hearing from disabled people from various parts of Nova Scotia who need special-circumstance drugs that are not on the list, who are not getting them as of today. So my question is, and I will look at it the other way then, are there any regulatory changes with regard to special needs funding or specific policies that
have changed as of today that would have resulted in the caseworkers for your department making decisions differently today with regard to special-needs drugs than they would have made yesterday?
MR. CHRISTIE: Mr. Chairman, as I indicated, there is no change in the policies. I have just looked through the regulations analysis. There is nothing there in drugs. If there was a question that perhaps there was some non-compliance with what was happening before, I don't know that specifically, but your question was, has there been a change and the answer is no, there has not been a change in the policy.
MR. DEVEAUX: Maybe I am following some rabbit tracks here, but you said maybe there was non-compliance with the policy before. So let me ask it this way. Has there been some determination by you, as a minister, or your senior staff, that some policies were not being properly regulated and that now there has been a more strict enforcement of how the caseworkers are applying those policies?
MR. CHRISTIE: No, I am not aware of any non-compliance. What has happened recently is that the department sent out an indication to just refresh people's memory of what the policies were, what the items were and to indicate that the items on the formulary list were the drugs that would be available, plus ones that would with a doctor's acceptance. That is the only piece of correspondence that I am aware of that has happened in the last while.
MR. DEVEAUX: Mr. Chairman, let me ask the minister this. Is there a pool of money that is specifically designated for special-needs drugs and if that money runs out, then there is no more ability, or is it an infinite amount of money and if there is a pool of money, how has it gone down in this fiscal year as compared to the last fiscal year?
MR. CHRISTIE: Mr. Chairman, there are two questions there; the first was on special needs. Last year the department spent $12 million on special needs; last year on Pharmacare we spent $29.3 million; and this year our forecast is for $28.95 million. The difference in those two, as I indicated to the honourable member for Dartmouth East, is the increase in the co-pay for people on assistance, not for disabled people but for people on assistance, from $3.00 to $5.00.
MR. DEVEAUX: Mr. Chairman, I want to turn to a couple other quick snappers, so to speak. In the metro area there are some specific organizations that I am trying to get a determination as to the level of funding that has been provided to them this year and last year. Maybe as I note these groups, you can tell me how much funding they received from Community Services last year and how much they will be receiving from Community Services in the upcoming year.
Let's start with the Home of the Guardian Angel and specifically the Single Parent Centre. Can the minister elucidate as to how much money they received last year and how much funding they are receiving this year?
MR. CHRISTIE: Mr. Chairman, the answer to the question of what they received last year, was $153,700, and it will be the same amount for this year.
MR. DEVEAUX: I take it that includes the Single Parent Centre. Is it global funding for both? Yes, I see the minister nodding his head. Boys and Girls Clubs of metro, are they broken down into individual clubs or is there one lump sum provided for all? I think there are seven or eight clubs in metro. If so, can the minister tell us how much they received last year in total and how much they are receiving this year?
MR. CHRISTIE: Mr. Chairman, I will just read those amounts off. For the Boys and Girls Clubs of Nova Scotia in metro, the figure is $20,400 last year and the same this year; Boys and Girls Club of Yarmouth, $22,800 and the same this year; Boys and Girls Club of Glace Bay, $12,200 last year and this year; Boys and Girls Club of Dartmouth, $69,900 last year and again this year; and Boys and Girls Club of East Dartmouth, $50,000 and the same this year.
MR. DEVEAUX: Mr. Chairman, there are other clubs. There is the Chebucto Club in Spryfield and maybe the minister just didn't get a chance to read the others. Could you tell me specifically what the funding was for the Chebucto Club in Spryfield and the Cole Harbour Boys and Girls Club, and what their funding is again this year?
MR. CHRISTIE: Mr. Chairman, the Boys and Girls Club of Cole Harbour is $18,583, and the same this year; and the other one you referred to, Chebucto was $10,000 and it is down again at $10,000 this year.
MR. DEVEAUX: Mr. Chairman, just a couple more organizations, Phoenix House, the youth centre, can the minister tell us how much they received last year and how much funding they are receiving this year?
MR. CHRISTIE: Mr. Chairman, the grant last year for Phoenix House was $67,800. Our target this year is the same. We did give them a one-time grant as the honourable member will be aware. There were some per diem-rental rate things where the rental capacity wasn't as high as it had been in other years, and we did make a top-up grant this year. Your question was what did we give them as a grant last year? It was $67,800 and that is our target for this year.
MR. DEVEAUX: One last area, Family SOS on Young Street, the family counselling centre. Can the minister tell me how much they received last year and how much they are receiving this year?
MR. CHRISTIE: Mr. Chairman, that particular one is under our family counselling, and I will ask the department to get you that number within the next few minutes.
MR. DEVEAUX: Mr. Chairman, I want to take us to another area, and that is the assistance rates and eligibility and specifically the desire to move people from welfare to work, obviously a goal that everyone in this House and Nova Scotians would say is noble and one that we should be pursuing. The question is, how do we get there and what are the incentives and disincentives? So I want to get into a bit of the detail. The minister and I have talked about this before.
The minister on a regular basis has talked about back-to-work initiatives and has talked about the desire to get people back to work. Maybe I will start with a fairly open question. Can the minister explain to me what his vision of the system, when it is complete, will look like, and how will we be getting people back to work better than we are doing now?
MR. CHRISTIE: Mr. Chairman, on that general question, I think there are a couple of things we have to discuss. The first is the opportunities and the abilities and having the partnerships and the organizations that have the ability for people to work with them. I specifically think of HRDC and I think of the programs they have. That is one of the partnerships that we are working on developing. Clearly, one of the things that has to happen is that proper assessments have to be done, but I think the most important thing in all of this is that there is the ability of individuals to pursue the way that is best suited for them as opposed to a standardized situation where we force everybody into a narrow channel. So those are a few of the things that we see. Obviously the economy is one of the things that makes the opportunity for people to get back to work, but there have to be some supports, assessments and paths laid out to help them. I think that is how I would see us do that.
MR. DEVEAUX: Mr. Chairman, the minister on a regular basis has talked about this system being voluntary. I will take him at his word that at this point it is to remain a voluntary system of moving people from welfare to work. But like any department, they must have objectives. I guess I want to clarify with the minister, in his mind, does he have an objective through the voluntary system of how many people - whether it be a percentage or a specific number - what is the goal that your department sees in the reduction of people receiving benefits? Maybe both, maybe you can say, look, we expect 5,000 to be removed in the first year or first five years, I don't know. As a percentage, maybe the minister can explain to me what their objective is and what do they hope to gain from the voluntary system?
MR. CHRISTIE: Mr. Chairman, if I can just go back to the honourable member. Your question was what did the family service association receive last year, and what is the project for this year? I have that answer now. Last year the number was $239,600 and it will be the same this year. Did that address your question? Okay.
On the other side, your question was, what does the department see? Well, as I indicated in my opening remarks, the department feels that there have been some successes in the last couple of years. Last year 4,100 people were off assistance, working, and 2,800 of those were back in full-time employment. Our goal is to equal that and perhaps be a little bit better in that. So that is kind of what we are looking at this year. We are looking at somewhere better than the 4,100, and hopefully we can get up in the 5,000 range. That is our goal.
MR. DEVEAUX: Mr. Chairman, you see that on a per year basis reduction; 5,000 per year is a goal that your department has? I am just looking to see if it can just be a simple nod if that is the case. Maybe he should put it on the record. The minister is predicting or is hoping to have a reduction in the welfare rolls of 5,000 recipients per year. Is that right?
MR. CHRISTIE: As I indicated, over the last four years, there have been some 13,000. Next year, the year that we are doing the estimates for, we are looking at 4,500, as the successes over the last three years have indicated. As I indicated, we hope that we will be working towards 4,100 and hope we do a little better than that. We have not projected out for next year, we need to get experience. But I will say to the honourable member, as I indicated, our plan is to bring in legislation this fall which will marry the two rates together, which will take us out, and how we will do that and I am sure as we do that our vision, as we go out, will be more clear.
MR. DEVEAUX: Here is my concern, Mr. Minister, through you, Mr. Chairman. Over the last three years we have had 13,000 people removed from the welfare rolls and there has not been any massive change in exactly how we are doing it. There might be some within the department but, generally speaking, the system has not been revolutionized. It has not changed radically and we have had a reduction. I think many would argue that reduction has come because we have had good economic circumstances, particularly in the metro area. So, clearly, even without doing anything, even before this Tory Government came in and started talking about more people moving back to work, this was already taking place.
The minister is not predicting a massive increase in the numbers. He is basically positioning himself based on the numbers that have occurred in the last three years and he is extrapolating for the next year. That is fine, but the minister on a regular basis over the last several months has talked about the need to get more people back to work and the language is very much based on getting people off welfare. Again, no one would disagree with the intent, but the language he uses has scared many people, whether they be recipients or people who work in the communities.
I guess my question to the minister is, if you are talking this language and it is more than just rhetoric, you must be doing something different and, therefore, you must be expecting that more people will be removed from the welfare rolls and will presumably have work, or at least not be receiving welfare, so why are the numbers not changing? What are
you specifically proposing and what makes your government and its actions any different than the Liberal or the Tory Governments in the past who in good economic times could also brag that the numbers are going down?
MR. CHRISTIE: Mr. Chairman, that is a very good question. There are quite a number of things that the honourable member will be aware of that have changed. I think the first thing, as I indicated, is that we have put an additional $1.5 million into income employment support to do those things. We know that people are going to require an accelerated rate of educational training, of job support, of training. We know we have to do that. That is step number one. So when you speak about the numbers, the numbers I am suggesting - you don't change those numbers overnight, you don't say we have decided that something is going to happen, you have to have a lead time - what we are doing is we are putting the $1.5 million into that.
One of the other options is that we are continuing our funding for the work activity centres. We are continuing our funding for the women's centres, for the transition houses, because we know that there is a lot of interaction there. There are a lot of times where people get help there in how they are going to change the direction of their life or get back to work, or find assistance there. So we have done that, we have increased that and that is a change.
Obviously, as we indicated, this is a transition year. We need to keep working on that, but I think people look at the fact that there are additional monies in the employment system, that there is additional and continued funding for the transition houses and the women's centres, that there is increased ability to help people in those areas. The honourable member asked me about a number of areas, about grants, and you will notice that those grant numbers did not go down because we realize that there is a lot of community support within those organizations and there are a lot of people who seek out and find help through those. So that is also part of our thrust of helping people.
Those organizations, I think we can all agree, provide a great degree of service to the community and they help individuals in finding the way they will seek help and getting help. So those are three of the areas that we see as part of the step in helping and getting people back to work. We believe those will be positive.
MR. DEVEAUX: I have a couple more questions for the minister around this specific issue. You talk about retraining and giving people the education and I like the language, I do, and this is my hope, but I guess on the other hand there is concern that anyone can use language, and you say, we must customize this to the individual, we don't want programs that are specifically sort of cookie-cutter, and that is great. The minister talks about a $1.5 million increase in educational funding to allow people to transition from welfare to work. The number of people on welfare is quite high. I think it is 27,000-odd on family benefits and I know 13,000-odd on social assistance, the short term.
My question to the minister is - given there are some 40,000 people on assistance, in some form or another, $1.5 million seems like a drop in the bucket, quite frankly - where does the minister see $1.5 million going and what type of programs will be provided and what type of education are we talking about? Are we talking about a GED, or are we talking about a university degree? Are we talking about a plumbing ticket? Maybe the minister can explain what he hopes to get for the extra $1.5 million.
MR. CHRISTIE: Mr. Chairman, I think the honourable member mentioned about the $1.5 million. Our return-to-work initiatives this year, our budget figure shows $5.6 million. So the $1.5 million is the increase over last year and, indeed, that includes all the many challenges that people might have. That includes the people wanting to get their GED, people wanting to attend school, people wanting to take home courses. It is a variety. I don't mean to indicate that we sit down with everybody and come up with their absolute ultimate goal. We have to work our way through that.
I would remind the honourable members in the House that even before we started talking about this, the system for people coming in to get social assistance, is they would be going through their assessment officer. They would be working with them. What we are hoping to do is to be able to assist more of those people to help them achieve their goals and, indeed, ultimately achieve our goal that I think we all in the House agree is getting people back to work. So it is a variety of things and, as I say, the $1.5 million, when you look at our return-to-work initiatives, is $5.6 million this year.
MR. DEVEAUX: Mr. Chairman, using your numbers, that is still only $1.5 million more and if you are talking the language you are talking, I figure that is only $40 per person extra. If you are talking about a new way of dealing with employment services, a new way of giving educational opportunities to people, I just don't understand where $40 per person is going to achieve your goals. I don't disagree with the intent; yes, more money is good there, more people getting from welfare to work is a good thing, but are we paying lip-service to it or are we serious about this by actually investing?
Now, maybe your goal is not. Maybe the goal is to get 4,500 people off welfare and you are going to invest that extra $1.5 million in that, maybe that is the case. The minister isn't specifically saying that and I think that has left the community confused because there is a lot of confusion over exactly what he intends to do with the language he uses and the small, but still important, amount of money that he intends to put into these.
I want to turn to another part of this and that is Pharmacare. I think it was either in the debate on Opposition Day a couple of weeks ago or it was a late debate a week earlier, on the issue of child poverty. I remember the minister specifically talking about the fact that he envisaged Pharmacare being extended to the working poor and I was, quite frankly, expecting something in the budget on this, because he had suggested it before the budget came out as a thing that his government was going to do. So my question to the minister is,
is it his intention to do this at some point? If so, will it be in this fiscal year or is it in something he intends in future fiscal years?
MR. CHRISTIE: Mr. Chairman, the member is quite right, we have talked about a variety of options of assisting people to get back to work, carrying Pharmacare with you and having that coverage as you go back to work and leave assistance is viewed by many people as a barrier to going back to work. We accept that and agree with that. The figures in the budget for this year do not include that initiative. We, as I indicated, will be bringing in the legislation this fall which will be standardizing the rates. We will have to be dealing with all of those questions as to the special needs and how we get people back to work, the supports that they need to do that. That whole discussion is coming in the fall, but your specific question was, is it here, and the answer is no. This is covering the present caseload.
MR. DEVEAUX: Mr. Chairman, I want to turn now to the Supplementary Detail. Let me first ask the minister, there was an issue around employment services under Income Assistance and Employment Support Services. The increase I saw, I am just trying to look at this, was only $20,000, and I am just trying to find the line item. It would be on Page 5.6 of the supplementary benefits. Oh, it is because Employment and Training - Field Staff goes from $3.32 million to $3.34 million, roughly, so I worked it out as a $20,000 increase in the budget. It is actually down from the estimate of last year. My question to the minister is again, talking about initiatives to move people from welfare to work and the need to provide them more through the voluntary system with redoubling our efforts - which are some of the words he might use with regard to employment and getting people back to work - how does he see $20,000 under Employment and Training - Field Staff as a way of accomplishing that?
MR. CHRISTIE: Mr. Chairman, the reduction in that line is a reduction in terms of people who have moved to Health. You will recall we indicated back a few months ago that the seniors' programs were going to Health. In that line, there were people who worked with the seniors programs and with seniors. Those who have gone from our line item here have moved to Health.
MR. DEVEAUX: Mr. Chairman, just so I am clear, under the line item Employment and Training, there were actually services being given to seniors? I am just curious what the seniors were being trained for in Employment and Training - Field Staff. It would be five line items down on Page 5.6 in the Supplementary Detail.
MR. CHRISTIE: What I indicated was those FTEs that were included in that line item, that had been included there in previous years and so on, were involved with Community Services, but they were working with Health and working with seniors on a variety of issues. When we made that transition, consequently we said, those people are involved in health-related issues in Health, so we moved that as part of a great number of
items on that page that moved to Health. As you look through the line items on the page, you will see quite a number have moved to Health.
MR. DEVEAUX: Mr. Chairman, so my question to the minister then is one I asked in the fall, and I will probably continue to ask this, is it the intention of this minister to privatize or to completely remove or even partially remove employment and training services from the department and to contract it out or privatize it to private providers in the province?
MR. CHRISTIE: Mr. Chairman, I think the honourable member knows that we work with a number of people on various programs. We have programs with HRDC. We have programs with people who run private industry where we put in subsidies for wages for people to go into those programs. That is the direction we are going. That is the direction of the legislation this fall. I am not aware of any discussions to privatize that. The direction we have been going in and the way we have been working is to continue that relationship with HRDC and with other people to work in that direction.
MR. DEVEAUX: Mr. Chairman, I understand there are some services that have always been provided. I think about the Dartmouth Work Activity Group; obviously, there is an example where they provide a very specific service that the department would go to for the specific training. I understand that part of it, but there is a specific line item for field staff of $3.3 million in which that staff are department staff, I am presuming. They are department staff. If you go into your local office of Community Services, you will see it is almost like a job centre. People are there to give advice and there are job counsellors who teach people about résumé writing and so on. These are staff of the department. My question to the minister is, based on your vision for Community Services and its application to Nova Scotia, do you see these people remaining as field staff employed by the government, or do you see this entire service being sliced off from the government and contracted out?
MR. CHRISTIE: I guess I will answer the last question first; no, I don't see it chopped off. I do see it more in conjunction with other federal government departments, with HRDC, the centres. I do see us more in work activities, but this budget and the direction we are going in in the department has never envisaged that we would not have those people as people of Community Services.
MR. DEVEAUX: Mr. Chairman, I am sure that will give a lot of relief to those workers who happen to be wondering about the future of their jobs. I am going to pass over the last half hour to the members for Dartmouth North and Hants East, but I just want to take a couple of minutes to ask one more question of the minister. The minister talks about a voluntary system. He talks about retraining. He talks about Pharmacare possibly being something that would eventually be provided to the working poor, eliminating the disincentives from welfare to work, enhancing the incentives. All these are good words.
He also talks about it being a voluntary system. He talks about measuring at 4,500 fewer people on welfare in the next year. My question to the minister is, given all this, what if it doesn't work? What if the voluntary system doesn't result in the reduction in numbers that the minister is anticipating? What if there is a downturn in the economy, God forbid, that results in more people having to rely on assistance, either short term or long term? Has the minister projected or thought about this, and if so, what is his game plan, if the numbers don't go down based on a voluntary system of transition?
MR. CHRISTIE: Mr. Chairman, that is a very important and valid question that we have looked at and discussed. Obviously, the member indicated perhaps we weren't being as optimistic as we might otherwise be about getting people back to work. You indicated that we were looking at last year's numbers. We are trying to be as practical as possible. Clearly, our hope is to do better, and that is where we will be going. I think, as the honourable member knows, the legislation is clear. If we don't achieve that goal, if there are people in need, the legislation indicates that we are to help those people in need. That is not a fall-back position, that is what the legislation says, and that is the stated mission statement of the department.
What we envisage in the future is trying to help people, trying to support them in their efforts to get back to work, and hopefully we will be successful. Nowhere in this piece does it ever indicate that if we come to this, we go back to plan B and we stop giving out assistance, because that is clearly not the mandate of the department. Our mandate is to be there to support people in need.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Hants East. You have approximately 25 minutes in your turn.
MR. JOHN MACDONELL: Mr. Chairman, I am going to aim for somewhere at the halfway mark to try to give my colleague, the member for Dartmouth North, some time. I thank the minister for the opportunity. I am going to make most of my comments more specific to my constituency. I will apologize to the minister right off the top, because I am probably going to ask questions in some areas that have already been asked.
The first thing I want to have clarification on, Mr. Minister, is around the seniors' tax rebate, property tax I believe, and I know this was something that back in the fall was to be coming. So I am not sure about the mechanism. Was that set out in the fall budget, because it wasn't clear to me that it actually was. Could you tell me where that is and what is going to happen?
MR. CHRISTIE: Mr. Chairman, to the honourable member, that provision is in the Financial Measures (2000) Act. It indicates it will be open, and it indicates the amounts that this year, those people that haven't received it before will apply as the other people do. The grandfather clause will be eliminated. People coming on will step in this year at $70 for the
first year. Next year they will have an increase until, at the end of year four they are all equal. It is in the Financial Measures (2000) Act.
MR. JOHN MACDONELL: Mr. Chairman, so if I understand you correctly, there are no back taxes that they can claim. In other words, for those who weren't eligible in the past few years, they are not going to have any way to get a rebate on those taxes. It will take four years for them to get up to the level that the people who are in it are presently at. Is that what you are saying? (Interruption)
In one case, one of my constituents won't be pleased about the time-frame for that. The other one is around an individual that I had written the minister on, and it is around small options homes, an individual, Rick Osborne. I know I had mentioned to the minister, if he remembers the correspondence, about an old convent that is in Enfield and the possibility of the department being interested in turning that into a small options home. I am wondering about the agenda of the government, if you are holding your funding, not willing to expand any more in that area? The concern is around trying to keep this individual in the community. Actually, after I had written the letter to the minister, I had another parent who came into my office, expressing the exact same concern, so I wonder what the department's direction is in this area?
MR. CHRISTIE: Mr. Chairman, I think the honourable member would be aware that we indicated back a month and a half ago that Dr. Michael Kendrick was looking at the small options homes, specifically, in the area of what programs are delivered, other things that should be added, and whether they were meeting the needs of people and how they were meeting the needs of people. That report we expect to have in June. Part of the mandate was that they finish in June, so we have it in July. That will formulate a large part of the direction we are going to move in those. I do recall the correspondence that the honourable member sent me. We have had two or three letters. I don't remember the specific one, but there are a couple we have been working with. I have indicated to the assistant deputy to have a look and respond to you on that particular case. We are looking at that with Dr. Kendrick's study and then we will be looking at, within our financial capacity, how we can achieve the best results throughout the province.
MR. JOHN MACDONELL: Well, I will take from your comments that you are not ruling out expansion, but you are not sure where you are going. My biggest concern around what you said, minister, is, from everything I have seen so far and that is around the program review, the review on the P3 school situation and now a report being redone on the report for the P3 schools, you are referring to a report or an analysis that will be done by July and you will be looking at that, and then you will determine your direction from that. I don't want to throw a wet blanket on anybody's good initiative, but I am thinking about the time line so my concern is around the fact that these things seem to take some time. Not that I encourage you to speed up to the point where you are not sure what you are doing, that you make the
wrong step, but certainly I think there are a lot of people out there who are willing to give input that may speed you up a little more.
The question around the mobility of the day care seats. I haven't had anybody tell me they thought it was a bad thing. I know in my area when we talk about Tots Academy and their application for seats, that they had to form a board of directors and so on, and a not-for-profit organization. I am wondering, if day care seats are awarded to that facility, then if they are mobile, I am assuming the person, the child when they leave, they take that seat with them. But in East Hants that is the only facility I know of that has the possibility of having seats awarded to it, subsidized day care seats. I am thinking if people who move out of my area so that facility is not convenient for them and there is no other one in Hants East, then basically the facility loses the seat, but the person doesn't have access to a facility to make use of the seat, but they are holding the seat. Can you explain how that works?
MR. CHRISTIE: Mr. Chairman, let me just go back to the honourable member's first comments. You talked about the study, and I appreciate the fact there are needs throughout the province and people are saying to us, please get on with it. I will undertake to keep the honourable member informed, and I have asked our assistant deputy to keep you informed on that. As progress is being made, you will be apprised.
On the second part of the question in terms of portability, the honourable member for Cole Harbour-Eastern Passage and I were having this discussion the other day. There are a number of issues around portability. The first biggest issue is when we recognize the portability situations, people need assistance to go back to work or they need assistance and they live in place A and move to place B, they want to be able to take that with them. We all understand that. The discussion we have been having with the child care sector is around the whole issue of non-profit and profit. If you move people away from the non-profit to profit, does it destabilize the non-profit sector? Obviously the answer probably in some cases is yes.
On the other side of the coin, part of the discussion is, is it fair to penalize somebody who is in a region that does not have a non-profit centre and they have their seats and they cannot make it? Is it fair? So, as I indicated to the honourable member for Cole Harbour-Eastern Passage, we have a lot more discussion. We have given our undertaking to the child care sector, that before we move forward, we have the 100 seats we will be working with the round table on that, we want to very carefully step by step go through the steps, so we ensure we don't destabilize some part of the sector by this, that everybody is clear on how it happens, that the rules of engagement are drawn up and that everybody understands how they are going. You will say to me, it sounds like another study. You are right, but we want to be sure we don't cause some destabilization somewhere as we move forward.
MR. JOHN MACDONELL: Mr. Chairman, I thank the minister. To be clear then, what you are thinking is that this seat can go to a day care that is for profit? Okay at least they can make use of it.
Another concern is around what I understand to be an agreement over a four year period where - and I can't think of the name of the organization, but in my area Endale Industries is a facility that helps mentally challenged, a sheltered workshop, around an agreement where - there was to be a pay raise over four years for the supervisors and the other line staff and directors. Some of those individuals have come on-line, those pay raises have occurred, but for the others, I think at the supervisor level, it hasn't occurred, at least to my knowledge. Can you tell me where that is in the process and when those pay raises will occur? Right now it looks as though some of the people underneath the supervisors are being paid more than the supervisors.
MR. CHRISTIE: Mr. Chairman, there has been a number of discussions about that. Those letters have not gone out from the department yet. They are still being considered. Yes, we have representations from a number of areas, they refer to it as the narrowing gap. We have had a number of discussions about those. What we try to do is recognize the upward pressure requirements that people are having. It is not our intent to go in there and determine what a director should earn and what an accountant should earn. That is not our role. Our role is to try to determine the upward pressure. That is what we are working towards, but we anticipate getting letters out to the people very shortly. Quite clearly one of the issues we wait for is the budget to be passed and once the budget is passed, then we will be able to communicate to people on the grants, on the increase of salaries, all those different things that are there, then we can communicate where they are going for the year.
MR. JOHN MACDONELL: Mr. Minister, I guess the reason there is a concern is because this process had already started and some of the people started to get their increases and other people had not and that did not seem to be based on the budget, so I think that is the reason.
MR. CHRISTIE: Mr. Chairman, I am advised that we have advised people in the direct care sector. So there are some people who have been advised. There are some others who are still pending.
MR. JOHN MACDONELL: Mr. Chairman, my last question, I guess, is around the management of a seniors' home in Enfield. It is controlled now out of the Metro Regional Housing Authority. Last winter we experienced a situation whereby the contractor for snow removal who does the Middle Musquodoboit area and also does Enfield, and it was a day or two before somebody came to plow snow around the seniors' home. I guess our feeling is that the service that we have been getting since we moved under the wing of the Regional Housing Authority has not been as great as it had been previously.
The individual who generally is kind of a caretaker for the facility had gone away around the time of this storm in the winter and her daughter actually was the person who was in charge. She called me trying to find out what was going on in this situation. They tried to contact Curtis Coward's office and actually after she spoke with me, I guess the word must
have gotten back but, anyway, she spoke with Miss Valerie McAvery and this lady was not impressed that this young woman had contacted the MLA over problems of getting snow removed around this seniors' facility.
We have real concerns because those people, most of them, do not have the capability to do this themselves. There are questions around the quality of the job when it is done. In some cases the walkways were not shovelled. They just threw salt on them in the hopes that in two or three days it would melt away. So I think they have felt that they had good response from an individual, Paul Power, in that it can charge for maintenance there, but I think they felt some of Miss McAvery's comments about the seniors were derogatory.
I know that there is a vacancy in that seniors' home, I think since last October. I phoned probably two months ago on behalf of an individual hoping to maybe have that space and they said that there were four people on the waiting list, two had said they did not think they would take it, the other two had to be approached and that would take some time for them to decide, come and take a look, decide whether they wanted it and say no. Since that time, that individual who I was speaking on behalf of, has given up. They went to an apartment. Somebody else, I understand, in the local area, who grew up in the area or is connected to the area, has also been trying to get into that facility and they were told, again, that there were four people on the waiting list. It has been since October that nobody has been in there and we cannot seem to get anybody in there for some reason.
I will come back to the issue around the snow storm. There was an emergency number that the people in charge of the facility did not have. Actually I found out about the number when I called, but they were not aware of it at all. I think we would like to see that the tender would go out in our local area. There are a number of people with trucks, local garages that would be glad to do that. Actually someone who lives right next door owns the local Shell station. He has some flexibility in his time and certainly could do that job quite easily. That is the way it used to be done and we got much better service. Even last summer, during the drought, the contractor who was to take care of the lawns showed up on a regular basis and they mowed the lawn and the lawn was not even growing, it was burned brown.
So I think if we are looking at the most cost-effective way, we would like to see a little more control maybe at a local level to take care of the needs of the seniors there because it appears that this isn't working. If the contractor who does Enfield has a number of other ones in the metro area, or Musquodoboit, then we are probably going to be the last one on the list because of our distance and we would like to see that change so that somebody in our local area could bid on that and we would like to see a little more human side, I think, from the people we deal with on the other end of the phone. Ordinarily I would not bring up that consideration, but we felt the response we got was not appropriate and it is something that, in regard to the seniors who live there, we want to know that the people looking after them have some regard for them. I would like to hear your comments on that.
MR. CHRISTIE: Mr. Chairman, I have asked them to take note of that. As the honourable member is aware, that does not fall under my department, but we will undertake to pass that on to the Minister of Housing and Municipal Affairs. The plan that is coming out, as the honourable member will remember, that was announced a month or so ago, indicated that the sector of housing would be coming to the Community Services side of things. Now, I don't presume you want me to wait and hold that until it happens so we will undertake to send that on to the Department of Housing and Municipal Affairs right away.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Dartmouth North.
MR. JERRY PYE: Through you, Mr. Chairman, to the Minister of Community Services, first, Mr. Minister, I want to ask you a question with respect to the service exchange. As you know, when municipal amalgamation came into place with respect that there would be a service exchange, the provincial government would take over the expense and operation of the Department of Community Services so each individual municipality would not have to deal with that particular issue. Mr. Minister, I want to say that this is one of the fine moves that the provincial government has made because there was such an inconsistency across the province with respect to the distribution of social service benefits to those people who were in need.
Many municipalities as a matter of fact would pay the bare minimum, forcing residents to become transient and relocate into other municipalities and, you, being the former Mayor of the Town of Bedford, and I, as a member of the Dartmouth City Council at that time, are very much aware of that. A number of residents from Bedford who, in fact, paid benefits at a lower rate than the City of Dartmouth, would go there and we used to keep track of the number of social service recipients who, in fact, had to travel to get a better allotment. Mr. Minister, I am wondering when is the final day, or is it already, that the complete takeover of Community Services will be borne totally by the province?
MR. CHRISTIE: Mr. Chairman, to the member for Dartmouth North, as I indicated the other day, in the budget this year is the $11 million which would be year three of the memorandum of understanding that was done a couple of years ago. There would be two more years to go. We are at $27.6 million now and we are headed towards, I believe it is $40 million total. We have two more years to go in that exchange agreement that was set up three years ago.
MR. PYE: Mr. Chairman, to the Minister of Community Services, I guess as a result of the downloading of assessments, that process will not be sped up, will it, the Department of Community Services' process of taking over the additional monies? My question goes to you, Mr. Minister, with respect to an article that was most recently published as a matter of fact in the Sunday Daily News. It indicated a number of issues where, in fact, welfare recipients will be disadvantaged and as a result of that I received many calls last evening and I will tell you that many people were brought to tears as a result of that article in the paper
because many social service recipients were unaware of the kind of significant cuts that would be taking place and the kind of reductions that they would be receiving as allotments.
Mr. Minister, I stood here last year during these budget estimates, and I asked if the department would consider drafting a brochure that tells clients of social services just exactly what their benefits would be and what they were entitled to and how they could access those benefits and so on. Also, the reverse would take place. If, in fact, there was a reduction in the services or the level of service that they expected in their allotment, their allotment component was going to be reduced, they could prepare themselves for it. I am wondering, have the clients of the Department of Community Services been well informed about the significant cuts that are going to take place?
MR. CHRISTIE: Mr. Chairman, to the honourable member, I hope the people that are calling you, that you are being very clear to them that people on assistance now, that will not be changing. People that are coming in after this will be the people that will go on the new single-tiered rate. The second part of your question was, have they been informed? We have had a series of mailings. I believe the first one went out with their cheque this month. We have had bulletins in the various offices to explain to people. As I indicated to the member for Cole Harbour-Eastern Passage, there is not only the question of people on assistance. A couple of things happen. People who are on assistance stay at the rates they are now. People on social assistance who are going to be at a reduced rate from the standardized rate, we have indicated to them they will be increased to that higher rate.
We have also indicated to them in the mail with brochures that people who were specifically under family benefits, where part of the special needs were not available to them, those will become available to them. We spoke earlier with the member for Dartmouth East about the specific drugs. I hope those people that are calling your office, please we have mail-outs, and if you need some additional ones to send to people that didn't get them or don't understand them, we will be happy to provide you with some. Yes, they are being mailed out. There will be a series going out to them to try to explain it. Clearly I hope people calling your office, the message is that people on assistance on March 31st will be on the same rate of assistance come May 1st.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Dartmouth North has approximately two minutes.
MR. PYE: That is too bad. I wish I had some extended time. Maybe through you, Mr. Chairman to the minister I can ask the minister this. I have gone through this Tory blue book, and I will tell you that during the election campaign, I felt like I was campaigning against another New Democratic Party out there because of the social commitments that were made in this blue book and to many people whom I have talked to at their doorsteps and so on.
Many residents told me this blue book was going to guarantee and ensure that welfare recipients would be the full benefactors of the National Child Tax Benefit Program. In fact, many of them were looking forward to that. On day one of this mandate, the Conservative Government said that it would be working towards making sure the National Child Tax Benefit became a component of the social services budget. In my opinion, Mr. Minister, I firmly believe that there is no justification for one level of government to take from the hands of the poor and the needy who should be receiving those dollars.
Mr. Minister, I have two questions since I only have a minute and a half left. One is, when are you going to give back the National Child Tax Benefit to those rightfully deserving Nova Scotians who deserve it from the federal government of Canada? Number two, how do you justify the continuation of food banks in a statement made by the executive director of food banks that, in fact, there will be more Nova Scotians under this government and under this social services policy coming to the food banks to receive at least a food component in order to live?
MR. CHRISTIE: Mr. Chairman, the member for Dartmouth North raised the question that I was discussing with the member for Cole Harbour-Eastern Passage. There are two parts: let's go first to the question of the National Child Tax Benefit and the Nova Scotia Child Benefit. Yes, it is clear we have indicated, and our intention is to work towards getting that National Child Tax Benefit basically eliminated. But when we say eliminated we mean it will be a benefit that will be available to all people. There will be no disadvantaged people one way or the other. We are clear that our direction is that all low-income people have to have assistance, whatever economic conditions they might have. That is the direction we are going. We see additional discussions with the federal government to try to achieve that. There is a lot of work. I guess my time is up.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Thank you, Mr. Minister, and the time for the NDP has elapsed. I am going to change now to the Liberal caucus.
The honourable member for Cape Breton West.
MR. RUSSELL MACKINNON: Mr. Chairman, I just have a couple of very small items. One is regard to the Alice Street School in the Truro area. The minister may or may not be aware of this particular issue. Although it is an educational issue, it overlaps onto the Department of Community Services because of the secure treatment centre that has yet to be announced or opened. I believe in the budgetary process, it was announced that that won't be opening for at least two years. Am I correct on that? One year perhaps, at the outside? The minister is acknowledging yes.
I would like, Mr. Chairman, informally, just to fast-forward to the issue. The teachers and students at Alice Street School are in a rather difficult situation by the fact that the gymnasium they are using is not large enough to be utilized for full participation activities. If
they want student assemblies or whatever, it only has the capacity for about 50 per cent of the entire student population. Would the minister be willing to undertake to perhaps work out some arrangements with the local school board and/or through the Minister of Education an opportunity for the population at the Alice Street School to be able to use the gymnasium over at the yet-to-be-opened secure treatment centre? Apparently, it is in very near proximity. It would certainly fill the void that is lacking.
MR. CHRISTIE: Mr. Chairman, to the honourable member, we have had a number of requests from the Christian Academy to use the soccer facilities; I believe, it was the Chignecto-Central School Board that was requesting this. My understanding is they were doing it on behalf of the Alice Street School. What we will be indicating to them is that within the timelines of Public Works of getting the secure treatment plans, if the time-frames match theirs we will be happy to work with them. There are some issues around the condition of the gym. As the member is aware, there are issues around liability and all those sorts of things that we have to work out. We will be working with them as best we can based on the schedule of public works as to how that is going to go. The decision of moving with the secure treatment, our target is to open that in the fall of 2001, which means that bulldozers have to be on that site within the next six months. Within the parameters of all those things, we will be working to assist as much as we can.
MR. MACKINNON: Mr. Chairman, I thank the minister for his undertaking. Certainly, I think it is a very important issue for these particular individuals at Alice Street School. One other issue, I will just make note of it, and the minister can take it on notice; it is an issue I have raised as far back as 1989 here in the House during budget deliberations, and perhaps 1990. It is with regard to a suggestion I had made. It is an issue that was addressed in other jurisdictions, particularly Ontario and perhaps British Columbia. It is kind of becoming a little more popular than it was when it was initially introduced. It is popular down through a number of American jurisdictions and that is the reverse mortgage annuity program, not just for seniors, which many seem to feel that that is the issue that would capture the moment, but I am thinking in terms of ways to help those on community services benefits to be able to build up some equity in the units that they rent over an extended period of time and perhaps with some type of a positive incentive program articulated in such a way that would help them to build up equity in that unit and eventually that could be one of a number of components that would help these individuals and families to realize independence from this particular process.
MR. CHRISTIE: Mr. Chairman, I do recall the honourable member mentioning that last year. It certainly is an interesting thought as to how that might work. The honourable member is aware that in the restructuring plan Housing is going to come together with Community Services and perhaps that opens a lot of possibilities as we look at back to work, we look at people who need assistance and various other things, it might open some opportunities. I will undertake with him to keep studying it and reviewing that with the department and to keep you informed as to our progress.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Dartmouth East with 55 minutes in turn.
DR. JAMES SMITH: Mr. Chairman, I will just be a few moments and let the minister relax after the heavy regulations that he has had to carry out of Cabinet, just more for clarification really in a minute or two and then let the minister enjoy the sunshine. I just want to be clear, on the 71 child protection workers, he said they are all social workers, I think. At what level of degree and would some of those be the grandparented social workers or are there any criteria for that? That is just a very brief question. It is a rehash. I think we had dealt with that earlier and I just wanted clarification because people keep asking me and I just want to be sure on what is the minimum level of social work that would qualify for those positions?
MR. CHRISTIE: Mr. Chairman, to the honourable member, that requires a Master's or a Bachelor's Degree in Social Work. We will get you a copy of the detailed specifications, but I believe the honourable member made reference to an item on our website some while ago and that is what that said, is people coming from across Canada or people in Nova Scotia, you had to have a Master or a Bachelor of Social Work degree. We will get you the technical term, the B.SW II, or whatever, we will provide you with that but, yes, they require a Master's or a Bachelor's degree, all 71.
DR. SMITH: That is an area, of course, we would watch. I think there is a bit of variety there and a lot of misunderstanding of what social work qualifications are. I think that is important and I think that is one of the areas of the budget, as difficult as it might be with some of the cutbacks and the standardization slashes, and over the next few days probably we will want to find more on this issue. As I mentioned, I compliment the minister for that initiative on child protection; really most important.
Tying in with that and to conclude my questions and comments relative to foster families and, again for clarification, I may have missed it and I am not sure if we dealt with it specifically, I expect it is on Page 5.5 in the supplement, where do we find foster parents, the families, and how much are we looking at there?
MR. CHRISTIE: The specific question was, where do you find foster expenditures. That is the fourth line down under Family and Children's Services, under Maintenance of Children. The amount this year is $34.298 million.
DR. SMITH: I guess that is why my concern was there because that number is down $2.3 million which is pretty considerate over the forecast and certainly down under the estimate. That was my concern there. However, referring to the 71 child protection workers, I think the minister had pointed out to me that they were in two parts of the budget. So I think we don't have to go through that again. I think he addressed the issue as best he could there.
I guess the issue of the foster children, I mentioned earlier about the conference on children in care and that vulnerable group. Can the minister indicate the commitments he has made to the foster families and, particularly, the P.R.I.D.E. model within this budget? What is missing out of that Maintenance of Children budget? If $36.6 million was spent and we are down $2.3 million out of that maintenance, what is missing out of that and also what is the commitment to the foster families? I know there are some programs in that. Is the status update on that perhaps, being provided in the budget, the tier level? I just forget the exact comment here now that had something to do with the tier level, and is that in the budget?
MR. CHRISTIE: Mr. Chairman, to the honourable member, there are a number of things that comprise that particular line, Maintenance of Children. We spoke earlier about the fact that that is where placements out of the province are maintained also. That is part of that process. The honourable member certainly is aware of some of the facilities that have been constructed over the last couple of years, the facility in Dayspring, which is going to permit more people to return to the province from outside.
We all accept and understand that they all won't come back because of treatment needs, but because of the expansion of some of those facilities, we are not anticipating as many out of the province this year as there have been in other years. We do have some of those additional facilities and community supports for them and they will be able to use some of those. That, along with the fact, as the honourable member indicated, our ability to do more assessments, to offer more help with the additional caseworkers, has led to that reduction in number, but the majority of that is the fact that we anticipate through our facilities of having a reduced number of people outside the province.
DR. SMITH: Mr. Chairman, yes, that refreshes my memory there and I remember our disagreement on that, that the secure treatment facility would not be in place in time, and I think that is going to be a very tight part of the minister's budget. The term I was looking for was the tier rate system on foster families, but I know that there is a work in progress there and I would just watch that. I was wondering on the status of the program for foster parents. I just think this is a real crucial area. It is prevention as well. I think there was some information mentioning Dayspring and the youth centre there. Have there been payments made to members in the community for damages done by youth in that facility and, if so, has it gone directly from the department or through the board of that facility for damages that have taken place in the community? Does the minister have any knowledge of that?
MR. CHRISTIE: Yes, Mr. Chairman, I have knowledge of the incident that happened some few weeks ago. The damage went through the department through the board to the people who were involved. I am led to understand that all of the cases have been cleared and compensation has been arrived at.
DR. SMITH: Mr. Chairman, I will just conclude my comments and thank the minister. I wish him well with his colleagues in Cabinet, some pretty redneck people to deal with, and I know with the influence of neo-Conservatives sweeping across this country, I hope you are not being influenced by any other (Interruption)
I think it is an area in this field, Mr. Chairman. Sure, times are tough and the money is limited. We want to have things audited properly, but there are children out there with single parents. Nobody is getting rich on this. There are a few people, as we talked about earlier, this cohabitation that takes place and that is very dangerous, damaging in small communities, but the need is there. I just ask the minister to keep a strong voice in Cabinet with his colleagues and not be influenced by this wave of neo-Conservatives.
Let's not blame the victim. Let's not damage the victims any further. Some of the most vulnerable people in this province are in your charge and you are actually guardian of many children. You have more children than anybody else in this House. If you add all the children of the people in this House, you have more children than all of them in your care. I think that is a responsibility that we all feel when we are there as ministers and we should never lose sight of that. I ask the minister to be a strong voice at the Cabinet, particularly for the children and youth of this province.
MR. CHRISTIE: Mr. Chairman, I do say to the honourable member, yes, that is a big challenge. There are 1,900-odd children there and it is something that we have to be very mindful of. I thank him for his words.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Halifax Needham.
MS. MAUREEN MACDONALD: Mr. Chairman, I understand that there is approximately 10 minutes left or so in the estimates on Community Services?
MR. CHAIRMAN: By agreement that is correct.
MS. MAUREEN MACDONALD: At any rate, I wanted to take a bit of time because frankly, Mr. Chairman, I would not be able to sleep tonight if I did not put on the record some comments about how I view the cuts in Community Services. I do this because I represent a riding, first of all, that has probably a fairly disproportionate number of people who are living in poverty.
I also do it because frankly, Mr. Chairman, I am the only member on the floor of this Legislature from the profession of social work. It is a profession that I care about deeply and I have been committed to for many years. I think that members of my profession would expect me to stand here in my place and speak from my heart and from my head on where this minister and this government are taking community services in the Province of Nova Scotia and it is not a pretty path you have chosen, Mr. Minister. The cuts in your department are
reprehensible and, frankly, they are immoral from the perspective of an ethical social work practice. They will be counter-productive in terms of the objectives that I believe you genuinely seek which is to improve the conditions of people who are living in poverty, but I think that your approach will not only not work, it will fail miserably and it will come back to haunt members of your government in ways that you will not know about at this time I suppose.
The people, first of all, who I would like to talk about are people with disabilities. People with disabilities have been marginalized and they have been left out of the public discourse on poverty almost completely because the attack on poor people in this country in the past 15 or 20 years has been such a sustained attack. Many anti-poverty groups have attempted to find a way to turn that around and the way they have done it is they have focused on children because, after all, who would attack poor children. The entire debate about poverty has centred on children and I don't disagree with focusing on child poverty, but in that process there is one heck of a pile of people who are poor who are not children, who are adults, who are adults without children, and they are people with disabilities. This budget and where you are going in your department is hammering people with disabilities in a way that is totally reprehensible and unacceptable.
I want to give some examples. I have a woman in my constituency who worked for 32 years in a dry-cleaning business. She was a very good and loyal employee, but she, in her fifties, became sick and was no longer able to stay in the labour force. She now lives in my riding in public housing. She receives less than $400 a month and almost $200 of that she pays for her rental accommodation. She does not have enough money. She called my office this winter to ask me if there was any way we could help her get a winter coat and boots. What this budget is going to do to her and people like her is take away the meagre little bit of assistance they get and make their lives even more miserable, make their lives intolerable, contribute to their illnesses. That is what this budget is doing. That is what this government is doing and it is absolutely reprehensible.
I have listened to the Minister of Finance and you talk about all you are going to do to assist people into the labour force and the transition into the labour force. Every day in my riding I get calls from people who are desperate to be in the labour force, who are in the labour force in a very precarious way, and your department's policies do absolutely nothing to assist them in getting into the labour force. In fact, if anything, you punish them over and over again by not picking up very simple medication costs.
I had a gentleman in my riding, and I believe you know about this situation because I wrote to you about it, who is 60 years old, he has a disability. He was required to apply for Canada Pension, not as a disabled person, but under the early retirement provisions to draw down Canada Pension, which he did, and he went out and beat the bricks every day looking for whatever small bit of temporary work he could find to augment his income. He receives about $170 from your department and he receives about $170 from the federal government
under CPP. That is it. His rent is close to $200. He has a chronic medical condition that requires a particular over-the-counter kind of drug. It costs $60 a month. The pharmacist on Gottingen Street provided him with that prescription free of charge for I don't know how many weeks, a month, six weeks, something like that, because he was disentitled from the small amount, from the $170 he was getting from your department, he was disentitled because prior to Christmas he had gotten some work in a call centre and he had earned about $800 or $900 and, bang, that was it. He was gone.
He used that money to pay back debt that had accumulated. He used that money to call relatives who lived in the U.K. at Christmas time, especially since his brother had died and he wanted to speak to his family. When all that was laid out for your department, it wasn't good enough. He went without $60 to get his medication for his chronic condition. Nobody cared about his chronic condition. When we went downtown to your department, we got nothing. Absolutely nothing, in terms of meeting this man's needs.
I could go on. I could list person after person after person. One riding. These are people who come to me. There are lots of people who never come, never pick up the phone. They go elsewhere, maybe they go and get Legal Aid, maybe they get advocacy from some other community agency. It is happening out there in many constituencies and many communities. What this particular Community Services budget is going to do is increase the misery for people, particularly people with disabilities. I speak with the social workers in the department all the time, about, is it my imagination? It seems to me that I am seeing particular patterns and trends, and these are the ones I see, the people who are falling through the cracks, big-time, people in the age group 50-65. They don't qualify for Canada Pension; they don't qualify for Old Age Security; they don't qualify for the Guaranteed Income Supplement.
They are dependent on your department for assistance, and you provide very little assistance - that is prior to this budget - and following this budget, it is going to worsen. It is very clear, what the department is expecting that people will go to churches and volunteer agencies like food banks. I can tell you, I have gone many times with people, as a social worker, to a food bank and to churches. They are unable - no matter how hard the good people in those organizations are and how hard they work - they are incapable of meeting the basic nutritional requirements of the poor. That is your job, with all due respect. That is the measure of a caring society. What in the world are you allowing this province to come to? People in Nova Scotia, if there is one thing that people in this province share across political ideologies, it is the idea to care and to be supportive in community, the inter-relationships between us. They expect a measure of decency in terms of government's response, a legitimate response to the poor.
This budget breaks trust with Nova Scotians. This budget does not reflect the basic, caring values of Nova Scotians, whatsoever. In the coming months, maybe even weeks, days, there will be a fair amount of analysis done, as happened in The Daily News on the weekend when Mr. Barss Donham laid out what has been occurring in your department over a period of time and where you are taking this department. I can assure you that there are people in helping professions, in community-based organizations, and people who are members of the disabled community, people who work with single parents, and who are single parents, will have something to say about the path you have chosen.
I simply wanted to get that on the record. There is probably a lot more I could say, but I will leave it at that.
MR. CHAIRMAN: I will recognize the honourable Minister of Community Services to close the debate.
MR. CHRISTIE: Mr. Chairman, I do want to close debate on this, with a couple of comments. The honourable member for Halifax Needham raised a number of issues and questions. I wasn't clear if the member was indicating that people who had called her were feeling that their rates were going to go down from what they presently have. Yes, there are some needs here, but I can say to the honourable member, some of the questions, some of the responses that we are getting for people with special needs, for people who are under Medicare and Pharmacare, in the correspondence we are getting, people appreciate those. Yes, there are always cases that need more. There are people who need more, cases that need more. But as we talked about, (Interruptions) Mr. Chairman, those people have indicated to us that, certainly, we can do more, there is always more that we can do, but we have to indicate and help those people as best we can. It is not one riding, it is not one in particular, it is all across the province.
Mr. Chairman, I do undertake to get back to any members who had questions. We will undertake to get those responses and get back to them. With that said, I move adoption of the Community Services budget.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Shall Resolution E3 stand?
Resolution E3 stands.
On behalf of the committee members, we wish to thank the minister and his staff for their presentation. That concludes the debate on the Estimates of the Department of Community Services.
[4:38 p.m. The committee recessed.]
[4:39 p.m. The committee reconvened.]
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable Minister of Economic Development.
HON. GORDON BALSER: Mr. Chairman, would you please call Resolution E4.
Resolution E4 - Resolved, that a sum not exceeding $20,333,000 be granted to the Lieutenant Governor to defray expenses in respect of departmental operations, the Department of Economic Development, pursuant to the Estimate.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable Minister of Economic Development.
HON. GORDON BALSER: Mr. Chairman, I would like to take a few moments to make some opening remarks. I would like to begin by introducing the staff with me today. On my left is Ron L'Esperance, Deputy Minister of Economic Development; to my right is Louis deMontbrun, he works in the department as well, in finance. On behalf of the department staff, (Interruptions) Indeed he is, they are.
I would like to start by saying it is truly an opportunity today to talk about the Estimates for the Nova Scotia Department of Economic Development. As everyone knows, the last quarter has been extremely busy, as has been the last year. I would like to take this chance to lay out some of the initiatives that have been undertaken by the department in the last nine months.
Mr. Chairman, I want to begin by acknowledging the tremendous work that the department has done in retooling and pushing the economy forward over the last year. There have been recent projections of moderate growth, in fact, economic growth in Nova Scotia has been as high as 3.6 per cent for 1999. While estimates are that it will slow somewhat in the coming year, Nova Scotia is still expected to maintain a positive economic growth for the foreseeable future. Unemployment, in fact, in metro is the lowest it has been in some decades, it is 6.8 per cent; and it is roughly 8.9 per cent across the province.
Mr. Chairman, much of the growth in employment opportunities in this province is directly attributable to the Sable gas project. Other sectors of our economy are growing equally as well. The fact that this is the case gives us all some cause for confidence in the future. It is truly a testimony to the positive energy and the acumen of the business community right straight across this province. They have seen opportunity and begun to seize it.
Mr. Chairman, I believe that we in Nova Scotia are returning to a state that hasn't been prevalent in this province for 150 years, that is a state where we have confidence and optimism in our future, a state where we are self-reliant and independent, something that harkens back to the time when Nova Scotia boasted the fourth largest merchant marine in the
entire world, it harkens back to a time when Confederation brought the provinces together. In fact, it was Nova Scotia that was the anchor to that movement to form this country. I believe full well that the business community is now poised to take the same kind of action and position that was the way 150 years ago.
Mr. Chairman, having said that, everyone recognizes full well that the current fiscal situation is not an easy one for this government or for the people of this province. We cannot delay addressing the deficit; we cannot continue to jeopardize the future of our children and our children's children indefinitely. We also have to understand that we have been some time coming to this decision. The federal government and many of the other provinces have undertaken fiscal restructuring that has turned their economies around. That makes it increasingly important that Nova Scotia follow suit. By not getting our financial house in order, Nova Scotia runs the risk of becoming increasingly uncompetitive.
In fact, I have travelled across this province talking to business people and community members, asking them what it is that they want from government, what they want from the Department of Economic Development, what we need to do to support economic growth. The message has been the same, they want the Government of Nova Scotia to take control of the deficit; they want the Government of Nova Scotia to lead by example; they want the Government of Nova Scotia to become accountable; they want the government to become less intrusive. That is the message that we have taken to heart, and that which we are trying to bring about through this budget process.
Like every other department in this government, we have had to shoulder our share of the responsibility for dealing with expenditure reduction. We will have less money, and I am sure in the discussions to come, Opposition members will go to great lengths to explain exactly how less money will impact. Having less money doesn't mean that we have to abandon the principles and foundations by which we can become a more responsible, accountable and effective government. What we have to do is do things smarter, be more efficient, be more strategic in what we do, be more focused, and that is the whole point of the exercise that was undertaken not too long ago.
Mr. Chairman, I know everyone here truly understands the challenges that this province faces, but I also believe that everyone here recognizes that Nova Scotia is a unique and wonderful province in which to live. We have many advantages that we can capitalize on that will allow our economy to continue to grow and prosper. Not too long ago, last week, I released the document, Toward Prosperity, a discussion paper that will allow us to develop an economic development strategy for this province. It is designed to serve as a foundation for the discussions that we will be undertaking across the province, to talk to people in communities, to talk to business people, to determine what it is about the strategy that they like, what it is that can be improved upon, and what it is they expect from the Department of Economic Development.
After that consultation process, we will come back and we will refine that document. Then we will develop the policies that will allow us to carry it forward. What has happened historically is that we have been operating in a vacuum, that is that decisions were made for partisan reasons, and often in the absence of any overarching philosophy or strategy about economic development. That is not appropriate. When you have few resources, you have to focus those resources strategically. As was promised in the blue book, economic round tables will be held in communities throughout Nova Scotia. We will have focused discussions, discussions that will involve people who do the job of growing the economy of Nova Scotia. We will engage them in the conversations that will allow us to bring forward a strategy that will work. It will require participation from all stakeholders. It will require participation from our federal counterparts, from municipal politicians, from RDAs, from CD units, we will engage them in those conversations so that we will do it correctly.
As much as we can, we want to make sure that the department works in concert with these groups, to make sure that we do it right, something that I believe has not happened in the past. Nova Scotians recognize and value and need to know that their government is working with them to ensure that there is a future. The discussions will be held over the next few months, so that we can engage in that conversation and put in place the revised strategy for the fall of this year. In the absence of doing this, you run the risk of being non-strategic, and certainly of not doing things as the communities and as the business community wants us to.
Mr. Chairman, it is known and noted, many times, that the economy across this province is not functioning at the same level. There are areas that have a very vibrant and strong economy, and there are others that seem to be languishing behind. We hope that through this consultation process and through developing an overarching strategy, we will be able to address that very problem. There are actually two fundamental pillars that will be driving the capacity of these communities to grow and prosper. We founded on partnerships, partnerships that will involve participation of municipal, provincial and federal politicians and departments, and will engage community members in figuring out what it is they need for their area to do it correctly.
Mr. Chairman, the two pillars are very important, because they will lay the foundation for moving forward. They will allow us to build a capacity in our communities, will allow them to take charge of their own destiny, to fully appreciate and understand the potential they have in their particular area, and how we can support them moving forward. In the absence of a great deal of money, and certainly past practice has been to throw money at projects in the hope that some of it would make a difference, and that has failed abysmally in many areas, we don't feel that is appropriate. What we feel is needed is a strategy that will ensure that we do it correctly.
Mr. Chairman, we have to go out and consult with the business community to ensure that they understand fully what it is we are trying to do. We need to develop a true partnership so that they will clearly belong to and take ownership of their own future. It is not simply enough to go gather information, come back and not do anything substantively different. As I spoke earlier about record low unemployment in the metro area, it is important to realize that we have other areas in the province that have high levels of unemployment. We need to address that, certainly the Opposition members speak at length about the difficulties faced by industrial Cape Breton, and that is no small problem. There are areas straight across the province that face a similar situation. We need to ensure that what works for Cape Breton will work for Yarmouth or Shelburne or any of the other areas that are facing difficulty.
Mr. Chairman, we need to ensure that the economy is maintained at a level that is sustainable. We have, at this point in time in our history, strategic advantages linked to Sable gas. We must ensure that we take maximum advantage of the benefits that accrue from that.
Mr. Chairman, we need to redouble our efforts collectively to try to improve this economy, particularly for the young people of this province, young people who will be saddled with a burden of debt long into the future unless we deal with that problem today. We need to ensure that they are engaged in discussions about what they want their Nova Scotia to look like. We have to reverse the trend of out-migration from some of our rural communities. We have to, indeed, work together as never before was the case. Oftentimes I notice in the Legislature that while we may all want to work towards the good of the province and its future, we sometimes get sidetracked by partisan rhetoric which does little to advance the real agenda.
One area of the province, as I said a moment ago, facing extreme difficulty is industrial Cape Breton. The Cape Breton Regional Municipality has come through some very difficult times. The uncertainty of Devco and Sysco have created a true sense of urgency in that community, and certainly being responsible for Sysco has brought that issue home to me in a very real way. I can tell you that I do understand the concern of that community, but I also understand that it is not enough simply to throw money at the problem. It is not enough simply to continue to fund an operation that has not turned a profit. We have to do things differently. That is part of the process we have undertaken. We are looking at either continuing to operate that plant as an ongoing private-sector operation or getting out of the steel business. That is a decision that was not taken lightly, and one that previous administrations had avoided, simply because it was so difficult to do.
It is time now to move on, but I do believe there is a place in Cape Breton for a privatized steel industry. I do believe at the end of the day there will be a place in Cape Breton's future for a privatized coal industry. What we have to do is diversify and ensure that the business can stand on a business basis. We cannot continue to operate businesses in this province simply because of the socio-economic rationale. That is not enough. We can use that
to weigh the decisions we make, but at the end of the day, the business has to stand on its own.
Just last week, Mr. Chairman, I was in Sydney with the Premier, and we listened to a presentation from the Partnership Alliance. That was a group of community members in the Cape Breton Regional Municipality who had come together, setting aside their partisan views, because they recognized there was a need to come together to speak with one common voice about the issue of economic renewal for industrial Cape Breton. That was a major step. The people seated at that table said it was the first time in their collective memory that they were able to do that. Now people on the Opposition side will often belittle and bemoan these kinds of activities saying it is empty rhetoric to do this. But in fact, you have to start somewhere, and a place to start is to get everybody in the room so they can talk about the common problem with a common goal. They did that. They created a document that has a number of recommendations and ideas about what they can do as a collectivity to take charge of their own future.
What was really interesting from my perspective, Mr. Chairman, was the fact that the document we generated, the economic strategy for the province that came out of my department, was very similar in nature, even though they had been developed separately, they carried many common themes. I believe, despite what may be said on the other side of the House, that it is a good first step. That is what it represents, a first step.
I believe that we have every reason to be optimistic. (Interruptions)
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. (Interruptions) Order, please. It is extremely difficult to hear the minister. (Interruptions) The honourable Minister of Economic Development has the floor. (Interruptions)
MR. BALSER: One of the things that we have to be realistic about is the opportunity the future presents. Oftentimes you get caught up in the day-to-day urgency of particular situations, whether it is Sysco or whether it is Devco or whether it is another organization or company that is having difficulty, but the reality is that in industrial Cape Breton, there are many, many companies that are doing very well, and they are very proud of their accomplishments. When we constantly focus on the negative, it sends out the wrong message. We want to convince people that Nova Scotia is open for business, that Nova Scotia is the best province in Atlantic Canada to do business in. We cannot do that when you wind up with empty rhetoric about doom and gloom.
MR. RUSSELL MACLELLAN: On a point of order, there was a statement, encyclical, from the Speaker the other day about repetition. I think that should apply to government members of the House as well. This is nonsense. This is just eating up time, talking platitudes that are just absolute nonsense. It really jeopardizes the whole process that was meant to be undertaken in this Legislature, Mr. Chairman.
MR. CHAIRMAN: There is no point of order. The honourable Minister of Economic Development has the floor.
MR. BALSER: Mr. Chairman, certainly oftentimes in this House it is difficult to distinguish between what represents true discussion and what represents empty rhetoric, and it is hard to say many times, so I suggest perhaps the people opposite listen to the flow and try to determine that we are setting the stage for where we want to go with this department in economic development with this province, something that hasn't happened, as I said earlier, for a number of years. It is the first time we have had an overall economic development strategy for this province.
I believe some of the rhetoric is based on the fact that that government failed to bring forward a document at all. Perhaps it is a little bit of the green-eyed monster coming to light.
The other, Mr. Chairman, is that it is easy to sit in Opposition and rail about what is wrong and can be and what should be. The fact is, we now have a document for discussion purposes, and we have done a number of things that will ensure this department is positioned to work with those communities.
In developing the document, we looked at best practices across the world. The United Kingdom has gone through some serious restructuring of their coal industry. The Irish economy was turned around as a direct result of the strategies implemented by the Government of Ireland. There are examples that work and work well, Mr. Chairman. That is part of what we are doing through this budgeting process and through the development of our document. We are getting the province in place to go forward with a strategy that will make a difference.
For any of you who have been looking at the department's business plan on the website - and I trust perhaps some of the members opposite have taken the time to go to that website and review the document, the business plan, and the details contained therein - they may have some idea of what it is that the department has undertaken as key strategies for the future. We are focusing on enhancing marketing opportunities. We see the New England seaboard and the American market there as being strategic to this province. Something I said earlier was a mindset of 150 years ago when Nova Scotia was truly a trading nation. We can return to those roots, we can build on our successes, we can focus on the future and not simply languish in the past and worry about what might have been.
We also have had the opportunity to bring the labour market secretariat into the department as well. So we do now have the opportunity to worry about how labour will figure strategically in our economic development strategy for the future. That is the key. The key is to have a labour force that is trained and ready to take advantage of opportunities that are presented or that are made by themselves. One of the ideas that seems to be prevalent on the opposite site of the House is that government will be able to save the day, and I don't believe that is the way it should work. In fact, I believe what government does is create an
environment where opportunities are allowed to grow and nurture. I believe we have in this province the business expertise to make things happen, to make a difference and improve. They will find the way to do that in concert with government and the government programs that are provided.
Mr. Chairman, the whole issue of the Laurentian Sub-basin and exploration offshore are creating a wealth of opportunity. What has to happen is that when that moves forward, and it will move forward, there will be a resolution to the Laurentian Sub-basin dispute, but what we need to do at this point is to have the businesses in industrial Cape Breton, who see opportunity through the Laurentian Sub-basin development, be prepared to take advantage of that. You have to begin laying that groundwork now. It is not simply enough for these businesses to say that they will be there if government will help them. That is not enough. They have to be ready to do it on their own. Government will be there to provide the supports they can.
Mr. Chairman, the whole Sable project has changed the business climate in this province. International interest is focused on Nova Scotia. Companies from around the world are seeing the development of the gas offshore and the future projects tier two, as being strategic opportunities. What we are going to do through the Department of Economic Development is position this province so that as those opportunities emerge, we will be there to help the business community take advantage. As we speak, the Premier is at the Houston Oil and Gas Show promoting, developing and enhancing opportunities for Nova Scotian businesses. Obviously, the very fact that Nova Scotia is there in a very large way, sends a powerful message to that industry.
I believe that as we move forward, focusing many of our interests on what Sable Gas can do and putting the department in a position where it can use scarce resources to lever federal partnering or to take specific advantage of unique opportunities, we will be in a position to make a difference. I believe that we will see a switch from the old economy that has driven this province for many years to a new, more vibrant and more diversified economy.
We have a lot of new economic activities that 10 years ago did not exist. Silicon Island in Cape Breton is strategically placed to take advantage of the IT sector. Certainly, the growing genomic research opportunity, the development of R&D. This province is positioned to take advantage of many of those opportunities. We have one of the most highly literate workforces in North America. We have a number of post-secondary institutions in this province that are world class. We have a Nova Scotia Community College system that is taking strategic advantage of new opportunities that are developing and emerging. So I believe we have at this point the tools needed to position Nova Scotia to take maximum advantage of the next generation, the new economy, the information technology economy, and the economy will be sustained and continue to grow as a direct result of the fact that
Nova Scotia has been geographically positioned next to one of the world's largest markets, and also at the same time to have a natural resource that is in very, very high demand.
We are in a position, I believe, Mr. Chairman, to move forward through these estimates and into the next four years in a way that will allow Nova Scotia to move from being a have-not province to being a have province, to move from being a province that was very reliant on federal government largesse for many of its programs to being a net exporter and a creator of wealth. So I look forward to the discussion that will take place through the next few hours. Thank you.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Cape Breton Centre.
MR. FRANK CORBETT: Mr. Chairman, I am going to make a few comments, then I am going to go into some questioning. What is interesting is one could say that from time to time ministers get up and see budgets through rose-coloured glasses. This minister is blind. He is telling these stories about this vibrant economy. It pains me greatly to say this, the accomplishments he talks about are from a past government. There are none from his department that have impacted this economy. Quite to the contrary, just about every one of your initiatives have been in the negative, so when you talk about what you have done, it is utter hypocrisy.
You lowered your budget, but you say phrases like, doing more with less. Well, you know that is just so crazy. You just try to tell the poor people of this province, because that is what we just heard through the accounts on Community Services, that he is telling the poor people to do more with less. It is not working, minister, it is not working at all. It is not an easy budget was one of your phrases. Well, may I also say to you that this type of budget is not what you and your Party ran on. You are being less than honest with Nova Scotians if you are going to tell them that. You had the infamous blue book that was very blue sky if you will, and wasn't telling Nova Scotians the real facts.
Your speech also was full of nice little catchphrases, retooling the economy. Retooling the economy. How are you retooling the economy in Cape Breton and rural areas? You speak as if you are, but there is nothing tangible there to show that the economy is moving forward. You talk about the amount of work that is being done in industrial Cape Breton. Well, I am telling you, it is not turning around. You are doing nothing. You snuck into Cape Breton the other week to hear from the group in there about their vision of the future. You snuck in because, quite honestly, you are afraid of the workers from Sydney Steel. You know that very well, minister, as the Premier does, that they found out you were there and cornered you. I heard the Premier that very day say we met with Sydney Steel. I tell you, the people from Sydney Steel cornered you. You did not tell them you were coming or decided to talk to them and you know that very well.
You talk about getting out of the steel industry, that you had the intestinal fortitude of getting out of the steel industry. In questioning we will talk about that later on about some of your ideas of getting out of the steel industry.
What is really great is this other catchphrase of open for business. I never thought Nova Scotia was closed for business, but you have some real problems here. Your idea of open for business is to turn it into a Third World country, where workers have no rights. We saw what you guys did with the regs. You are holding them back. No consultation. You don't care about workers. Another great line, minister was you found the New England market. Well, I will tell you what, for over a century people from industrial Cape Breton have been working in the New England market, so they knew about the New England market long before you were even thought of. So don't tell us that you found the New England market. Why don't you find it and do something with it. That would be a treat. But you haven't. You have told everybody we have found it. More talk, no action.
Then we have, oh, this is the good one. You proudly project this document. You proudly tell Nova Scotians about this document and what you are going to do. Well, we talk about the labour force in here, yet we have just gone through committee on education, and we are not going to have a skilled workforce if we have all these guys to move forward with their cuts. They are telling us, allow us a two year gap in educating our children. Then we will make up that two years somewhere. It is not like taking a two year leave of absence from a job, it is two years out of a real life. You are way off base on it.
Then the Laurentian Sub-basin. He is going to come in and save the Laurentian Sub-basin. You have now been in power for, what, nine months. You have not done one substantive thing to move that forward. You are telling us you are going to do this. Well, Mr. Minister, you are a nice fellow, but you are full of it, because this is a crock. You are not doing anything on it. I told somebody today, if you look at it in a purely political sense, you folks are in the best position. You have no seats to lose in Cape Breton. You could just move in there and try to reinvigorate the economy, but what do you do? Because you are so void of any kind of ideas, you sit there.
I see the Minister of Tourism is waving, and I don't discount his seat, but I discount his input. He, like you, minister, in all due respect, in the ranks of this government is what you would categorize as a junior minister. There is an inner circle in this government that runs things. If you really ran your department and not the inner Cabinet, you would be in Houston today and not in Halifax today. It is as simple as that. I would be quite embarrassed if I were the minister and I stayed here and Dave MacGregor went. That is the idea of how this government works. There is a real small core that is running it, and it has changed.
You want to talk about change in the business climate. Again, the only change I see in this business climate in areas outside of metro is downward. You are not effecting a positive change here. So what are you doing to help these businesses outside of metro? Your
largest single announcement that you did as a stand-alone department was the Scotiabank announcement. That was your largest stand-alone announcement. And where was it for? It was for the area in this province that has the smallest amount of unemployment. You did not take that company on and say let's move it to Yarmouth, let's put it in Shelburne, let's put it in Pictou, let's put it in Cape Breton. No, you bowed to the pressure and put it in metro where they wanted it, not where Nova Scotians wanted it, but where the Bank of Nova Scotia wanted it.
Then you make platitudes in this document also towards prosperity. Again, I will go back to the skilled workforce and an educated workforce. Well, Mr. Minister, according to Voluntary Planning, one of the biggest problems here in Nova Scotia is worker literacy. Yet there is no follow-up of that in this budget. This budget is devoid of any kind of substantial training for workers who are in the workforce today. There is no talk about training or keeping on funding workers' literacy programs. You make a statement and, quite honestly, it has no basis in fact, that we have tried to do things in this province that would move forward the fact of worker literacy, but because of slashes in your budget, have no room to move on that. As they say, no wiggle room.
Mr. Chairman, I would like to begin today with probably a few questions around some of the projects that the department has funded. As I mentioned in my earlier comments, the Scotiabank one is I think particularly offensive. I want to ask the minister - it has been roughly six months since that deal has been hammered out - how many full-time jobs have been created since you invested in that project and what is the average hourly wage?
MR. BALSER: Mr. Chairman, certainly the issue of supporting businesses in rural or metro is one that is ongoing. I know in his opening remarks the member opposite spent some time talking about the failure of this government to do anything of substance in rural Nova Scotia and, in particular, with regard to Cape Breton. So I would like to touch on a few items around that and then, of course, get to the question that he directly asked.
Certainly in terms of what we have done specifically for Cape Breton, recently there was a trade mission where 29 Cape Breton firms participated in a program to try and access new market development in the Boston area. It was a joint partnering, but I do have letters from a number of agencies in Cape Breton that expressed their gratitude to people in the Investment and Trade Division of our department for putting together that program and using the Boston office to take advantage of networking that was possible.
So we have done that, Mr. Chairman, and certainly the commitment of $500,000 of new money to market specifically Cape Breton is a commitment towards recognizing the unique difficulties faced by that region. The other thing that we have done is targetted $3 million specifically for economic renewal in Cape Breton as a result of the potential impact of Devco and Sysco. That is over and above the ongoing commitment that this government has to programs in that region.
The other thing that the member opposite attempts to do is paint all of Cape Breton with that same kind of negative aura and nothing could be further from the truth. There are areas of Cape Breton that have extremely vibrant economies. If you look at the Strait area, that area has been able to take advantage of the onset of oil and natural gas and position itself to have the workforce in place to take advantage of that. I think that is a message to not just other areas of Cape Breton, but all of Nova Scotia, that part of the responsibility for retooling the economy lies with recognizing opportunities that do exist.
Back to the other point where he indicated that one of the major announcements, that single major announcement in our area was with regard to the Scotiabank deal but, in fact, I think he will remember that the Staples call centre brought a number of jobs to a riding in metro as well and that was certainly looked on very benevolently by members of the Opposition who on one hand could point to the Scotiabank and ridicule and on the other hand could look at one very similar in nature that seemed to have a different impact. So I guess the reality is you cannot always have it both ways. You have to accept the direction and policy and move forward from that.
The other thing that this government has done is we have put in place a $1.5 million rotating line of credit for the Nova Scotia Boatbuilders Association because it operates in small communities right straight across this province. Not only that, but it is very strategic because it is going to allow the Nova Scotia Boatbuilders Association to access new markets because it is going to fund the development of prototype hulls and that is going to create 500-some jobs in this province and not only create them, but maintain them I should say and certainly add to it because we are working together, after conversations with the Boatbuilders Association about how this government could maximize the potential impact of $1.5 million. That is a good thing for rural Nova Scotia.
Another thing that we have done is we have engaged the communities in conversations about what works for them. Economic development does not work when it is simply imposed from afar. You have to engage the communities in conversations. The other thing that the member opposite talked about was the fact that he cannot see where there is a commitment to a training of the workforce and while it was not an initiative of the Department of Economic Development to put $2 million additional funding into the Nova Scotia Community College system, it certainly would indicate a commitment on the part of this government to recognize that many of the opportunities for employment for young people in this province will come as a direct result of those skill sets that would be acquired through training at the Nova Scotia Community College. When you have scarce resources, you have to use them wisely.
But back to the question the member opposite asked about the Scotiabank deal and because we believe very strongly in accountability and maintaining an open and transparent process, we have contacted that organization to put forward the audited figures and when those become available as a direct result of what has gone on up to this point - we wanted
them to have a chance to have the trained workforce in place and create the jobs - we will make that information available once the audit figures are complete, but we have made that request and we will be following up on it.
MR. CORBETT: Mr. Chairman, this is great. I mean he all of a sudden now is going to find out these. He took 10 minutes to answer the question and did not answer it. He is talking about training. There is no workplace training taken on by your department. There may have been some money allotted to community colleges, but what we are talking about here is the ongoing training of workers in this province and yet this minister does not want to engage in it.
I asked him specifically two questions. One was how many had been hired and he has not said how many. He did not even go near what they get paid. So maybe a simpler question around this would be how many have been trained so far at the Bell Road community college campus for the Scotiabank call centre?
MR. BALSER: One of the problems we have here is the expectation that the Department of Economic Development should not undertake training of workers and I don't think that is quite the strategy we have in mind. What we have in mind is working with businesses and when opportunities present themselves that are strategic in nature, like the investment in a training facility, so people who want employment in the call centre industry would be trained. We see that as an investment in the future for not just one business deal, that was the particular Scotiabank deal, but an opportunity to train people for Staples or for any one of a number. As to the actual number of students who have gone through the training process at the Bell Road campus, I would have to get that information for the member opposite. I don't have that at my finger tips, but certainly, I would be willing to undertake to do that.
MR. CORBETT: Mr. Chairman, see here is the doublespeak. One moment he stands up and says we spend our money wisely, but when you ask him about how many people have been employed, how many people have been trained, how much do you get for it, he says, we are not into that. What does it mean? Do you throw a bunch of money out the window and Scotiabank comes by in the morning and picks it up? It doesn't make sense. Why would he be saying that he is going to do more with less, and yet continue to let money go out the front door untracked? I will be coming back to this stuff in a moment, but why would he not have invested that money in the Marconi campus in Cape Breton? God knows, we have sent enough people from Cape Breton here to Halifax over the years to get educated. I don't know why he is so hesitant to send them the other way. Where there was an ongoing program for training people to work in call centres, why wouldn't he have at least stood up at that point to Scotiabank and said no, I have given you the farm, but I want to keep one of the horses. This is what it is. If you are going to do training, you are going to do it in Cape Breton, because there is already a module down there. Why wouldn't you have done that, Mr. Minister?
MR. BALSER: Mr. Chairman, what we have to do in this province is ensure that there are training facilities available straight across the province. Generally speaking, the member opposite has a very myopic view of the difficulties this province faces, and certainly, the fact that industrial Cape Breton faces problems is not to be minimized. There is no question about that. We have a training facility here. We will work with the Marconi campus to ensure they have training opportunities as well. The reality is you have to go where the demand is greatest.
In that particular juncture, part of the process was to ensure that there was an opportunity to create employment through a call centre located here in this province and ultimately in metro and to ensure there were training facilities to provide a trained workforce. As was announced in this House, actually it was announced in the province not too long ago, the YES call centre is going to provide significant opportunities for a great many people in industrial Cape Breton, 900 jobs. While members opposite will say well that was an initiative that came about as a direct result of the federal government's participation, the reality is, and members opposite, particularly those who were former government, know full well that Investment and Trade were instrumental in bringing that forward.
I would also like to point out that while we talk about areas with particularly high unemployment the trend generally is positive in this province. Metro does have a vibrant economy. I think if you ask the people in Port Hawkesbury how they view their economic level of activity, they would be fairly confident and positive about what is happening and where they are going. In fact, they are most interested in seizing the next level of opportunity that comes through the onset of tier two or the opportunity for some exploration that is going on offshore. What we have to do is change the mindset of the people in this province to look at things in a more positive perspective. Opportunity is not going to come to you. You have to go out and find it, and when you do find it, you have to be prepared to move forward on that.
Certainly, we support training facilities in Cape Breton, in Yarmouth. The Nova Scotia Community College has a network right straight across this province. We will work with them to ensure that when there is an opportunity, the workers will be trained. In fact, going back to the Nova Scotia Boatbuilders Association and our support for them. Part of the reason for doing that was because there was a need to train workers to take advantage of that industry's growth. We are working with the Nova Scotia Boatbuilders Association to ensure that as those new projects come forward, people will be trained on the job.
MR. CORBETT: Again, no answer to the question. He says in one statement that we have less money so we are going to rationalize services. Yet in his next statement he says, if someone asks for it, we will put a call centre program in. I take it from your remarks, Mr. Minister, we will put one in Shelburne, we will put one in Yarmouth, we will put one in Pugwash. We will put one wherever that morning dictates. If I wake up on my left side, I will
put it in Yarmouth, on my right side, I will put in Cape Breton. There is no rhyme nor reason apparently. So it makes no sense of what you are saying.
Then when anybody seems to question you on the figures of where we are going with development, you seem to get very uptight about it and move away from it and say this area, this area. You still do not try to attack the problem head on. Is the economy in the Strait area moving in the right direction? It certainly is. Is it there yet? It certainly is not. But what we are talking about is areas of this province that are not participating fully in the rejuvenation of the economy in this province. Yet you don't want to speak of that. I speak very straight forwardly about the fact that there are very large areas of this province with 40 per cent unemployment. (Interruption)
But these problems, if we mention them, it is like the idea that you lock the ugly kids away and you don't show anybody. Well, Mr. Chairman, this is all part of this province. If you don't want to believe that, there are pockets of large unemployment in this province. What you are doing with this budget, what you have allowed the Minister of Finance to do with this budget is not going to help us enjoy any kind of economic renewal. We will still have a patchwork. We will have a very hot zone here in metro and we will have parts out in the spoke area, in particular the areas you come from, Mr. Minister, that won't be enjoying the same type of economic renewal. Yet you blame us for being negative, and what we are trying to do is be informative and tell you what is going on. Yet you would just as soon take the word of the Minister of Finance who says we have to slice and dice our way to prosperity and not grow our way to prosperity. I think on this side, I speak for my New Democrat colleagues, that we see growing the economy, not cutting the economy, as the way for growth across this province.
We have talked about the province's investment in Scotiabank. Quite honestly, I don't think you have been forthright with your answers on it. You have alluded to them to a great amount. So I am going to go to another area, as you roll your eyes. I want to speak about development agencies. There was much said on the last budget about the ministers' involvement with RDAs and that they would have to be accountable. He talked about making sure they would have audits. A very direct question, Mr. Minister. Could you tell us if audits have been done on all the RDAs across the province, and what was the result of those audits?
MR. BALSER: Mr. Chairman, certainly in the fall of last year we convened a meeting at which the directors and members of the RDAs were present. At that time, I laid out very clearly the expectation this government had towards RDAs and how they would figure in our economic development strategy. What we saw, and what I had observed was that models of best practices in some areas weren't being followed up on in other areas. While RDAs generally speaking are recognized as being a very powerful force in community-based economic development, there was a need to sort of refine what it was that they were doing. Actually, the previous government had undertaken an evaluative process. Part of that process was to bring forward an agency to review the workings of the RDAs. Secondly, there was a
self-evaluation component of that. So there has been an audit that was undertaken by the previous government.
From that audit, we followed that up with a meeting in the fall, at which time we clearly indicated that we expected the RDAs to put forward a multi-year strategic plan on what it was they intended to do in their areas to advance economic development. We also wanted them to put forward their financial statements so that we could hold them accountable and responsible for the funding they receive. So, yes, we are moving towards a much more open and accountable model for dealing with the RDAs in this province.
MR. CORBETT: Now, we have done the audit. I am not sure if you found anything else so I guess I am going to ask something similar again. Have you found through all of the RDAs that the province has been getting good value for their dollar through the RDAs?
MR. BALSER: Mr. Chairman, certainly there were points raised in the process that indicated there were some areas that needed improvement. As with any process when you undertake to review what it is you are doing, you are looking to improve on practices and, as I said in my response to the previous question, through best practice examination, there were obviously areas where some RDAs had strengths and others may have weaknesses. Perhaps in one area it was around how you engaged the community in capacity building and in another area it may be directly in support to business to grow job creation.
So what we attempted to do through this process is to bring together an opportunity for RDAs to share expertise, to look at what is working well in areas and to replicate that through a review process. That is part of the multi-year strategy and part of the dialogue that we had, as I say, at the meetings that we held in the fall. So certainly, generally speaking, if the question was and it is, do we get good value for the dollar? Yes, we do. Are there ways in which they can be improved upon? Yes, there are. So that is part of a process that links to the strategy, how do we get from where we are today to where we want to be in the years out.
MR. CORBETT: He says that the audit has been done. We get good value for our dollar. How is it determined then that you do get good value for your dollar and at what point do you say to an RDA, that is it, we are getting out of any kind of financial arrangements with you?
MR. BALSER: One of those very complex questions is how do you determine. It would be simple if you could just look at a bottom line and x amount of jobs were created or were not created, or those kinds of very definitive analyses, but the reality is with community capacity building, perhaps just simply getting the community together, as was the case with the partnership alliance, where a number of different organizations came together to talk
about a common goal and common issue, so that may be, in fact, a criteria on which you base the evaluation.
One of the reasons for retaining the Ati Consulting Group to undertake this analysis that was carried out was because we felt they were in a position, a bit at arm's length, to look at what was going on in RDAs across the region and determine what works well. As I say, in some instances it may be that the RDA has focused particularly on job creation. In another area it may be that the RDA has focused on infrastructure development and capacity building. So it is difficult to use a one size fits all kind of evaluation process. So are we working through that? Yes, we are and, again, we obviously engage in conversations with the RDAs on a regular basis and we do provide direction to the management teams and these RDAs when we feel that they are not necessarily going in the direction that we feel is in the best interest of all concerned, but certainly if it is going to be a real and holistic kind of evaluative process and a development of a strategy that works, you have to engage in real conversation and be willing to undertake varied views of what is working and working well.
So there is no definitive answer as to, did you create x amount of jobs or did you expend x amount of money to do whatever. It has to be how does the community view that the RDAs are working and working well. I know in the area that I represent we have an RDA that has received international awards with regard to community economic development. In some instances that alone may be an indication that that is a wonderful RDA, but that may not be the criteria that another group wants to apply to evaluating the RDA. We need to look at what works and works well. We need to engage the community in a conversation about that and then make a determination.
MR. CORBETT: Mr. Chairman, again we enter into that realm with the minister of I don't know how much I spend. You are almost saying to us, well, it is not the amount of money you spend, it is how good you feel about yourself almost. There is almost no qualifying in the department. It is appreciated that what may work in your area may not work for DIMA, Development Isle Madame Association, but you are the same fellow who in your opening statement says we are going to go and find out, does one size fit all because if it works in Yarmouth, it is going to work in Cape Breton. Those are your very words and if you want to go back and check Hansard, that is what you said, but yet you are saying all these feel good words, but it means nothing because you are not quantifying anything.
You are cutting money out of your budget yet you have no control over the money, whether it is Scotiabank or it is an RDA. So, quite simply, I guess maybe we will combine and start finding out how much you are spending there. The Ati study, how much did that cost and how beneficial was it for Nova Scotians?
MR. BALSER: I don't have the actual final dollar figure in front of me at this point in time. I will take that under advisement and certainly get it for the honourable member. That is a bit of a detail that we don't have right at our fingertips.
MR. CORBETT: It is becoming more and more frustrating when we talk about this because, you know, Mr. Minister, we have talked about your budget being slashed and yet when we talk about where this money went or that money went, it is under advisement. So you, like the Minister of Education, have bought a pig in a poke when it comes to the budget. You don't know where the dollars are. They are out there somewhere, but when asked straight out what you are doing, it is like a game of three-card monte here.
So if we have RDAs out there, you have done an audit and from what I could tell, from Nova Scotians' perspective, is that nothing substantial is coming out of it. You don't know how much the study cost and remember your infamous statement, Mr. Minister, about telling them to think outside the box, but that is it. So where is your money going? In a sense, you are telling us in one breath that you have a one size fits all, then you say we don't. We say we have to rationalize money, but we are going to spend it in programs as we see them. So if you could tell me the criteria, where you and the Minister of Finance sat down and discussed slashing your budget, how was that arrived at? How did you both say, okay, this money can be best directed somewhere else or we can just get rid of it? How was that arrived at?
MR. BALSER: Mr. Chairman, first, I would like to point out that the RDA funding, the core funding, has been maintained for the coming year. So we recognized this as part of our overall strategy, that RDAs will figure prominently in community economic development. So it is a bit of a misnomer to think that the RDA program has been substantially reduced in this process.
The other thing is that the RDAs, in terms of accountability, they do prepare multi-year business plans that are reviewed by the department, by people at arm's length, if you will, from the RDA who make a determination of whether or not the business plan is in keeping with the overall philosophy and strategy of the RDA and they make suggested recommendations around reviewing and improving those plans. They also prepare audited financial statements. So they are monitored and they are held accountable for the money that they receive.
The other thing that RDAs are very good at doing is levering funding partners, generally speaking, through federal programs. There have been a number of examples of that, so the RDAs are put in place with a view towards developing capacity within the community and using their position to access funding programs that partner them with other agencies, either federal or provincial. So they do a good job of doing that.
MR. CORBETT: Well, let's get something else straight too, Mr. Minister. You say we do this. The federal side of it, I believe the RDAs do a lot of the federal hunting themselves but, you know, it is very little. So I still don't know what we got out of the Ati study. You talked tough last fall about trying to bring this in line, and you haven't. You have not shown me anything substantive that you have done. You haven't answered the question
of how you and the Minister of Finance arrived at slashing your budget. It behoves me to say why we should believe you when you talk about doing more with less, because I have the feeling you didn't know what you had in the first place, and you are doing less with it now. I would ask once again if you can explain to the House how you have come up with the idea of why it was all right to slash your budget?
MR. BALSER: Mr. Chairman, certainly the RDAs are a big part of community economic development. They are a recognized vehicle by which to move forward the community economic development agenda. He speaks at length about accountability and ensuring that RDAs are held responsible and accountable. The Ati review process was the first undertaking to look at what the RDAs were actually doing, whether or not they had a clear appreciation for the mandate, and whether or not there were areas that could be improved.
That was done, and then out of that, working with the community economic development division within the department, we undertook to require that they put together multi-year business plans in consultation with the department and consultation with the CED division so that they had some sense of where they wanted to go as a community. In the absence of a strategy, it is easy to get lost along the way, so we asked them to look at the Ati review information, to bring forward a multi-year planning strategy, to put forward financial statements that could be open, transparent and audited to ensure that taxpayers were getting good value for their dollar. If the member opposite is indicating that the RDAs are not able to do that effectively, I would take exception.
I believe that many people in various communities of this province recognize the RDAs as being critical to the overall improvement of the communities' economic development plans. Certainly we feel that is a critical way to go. The only way community economic development will work is when communities are empowered. We hear one of the members opposite speak at length about his particular area and the way in which that small community has rallied around the RDA to make sure they have a sustained and diversified economy. That is a model that can be applied in any region in this province.
One of the problems we have had historically is that governments have thought they could impose success, and you can't do that. In fact, the strategy of having a voice in government, members opposite often say that we need more money, we need a government voice. In fact, if you look at the Cape Breton model, there has been a long history of having significant influence at the federal Cabinet level, and it hasn't worked very effectively at all, or we wouldn't be dealing with the problem we are dealing with today.
If you look at the history of politics in Cape Breton, if you will, there have been clear examples of having had significant power at the Cabinet Table, in fact having had money directed as a direct result of that power. At the end of the day, the money is gone, the jobs weren't sustained, and we continue to debate the same old problems. I don't know that
government simply having a voice at the Cabinet Table is sufficient. What you have to do is ensure that the community knows where it is going, and has a say in how the money is expended. That is certainly the model we put in place through the process we have outlined with our strategy paper.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Before I recognize the member for Cape Breton Centre, I would like to remind the members in the House that we are in Committee of the Whole House on Supply, and it is very hard for the Chairman to understand what is going on in listening to this, so I would respectfully ask the members to quiet down.
MR. CORBETT: Mr. Chairman, the minister for the second time did not answer the question. Your global budget, how did you arrive at the slashing of that budget? I know you have a tendency to wander so I will throw you another one, too, while you are up there. One, he is talking about the strategy that came up with the Ati study. Well, I haven't seen this Ati study. What is the strategy? You talk about a strategy, but it is the best-kept secret in Nova Scotia then. Please, please don't show me this document.
MR. BALSER: Mr. Chairman, the process by which we reviewed the budget and made the expenditure reductions that were necessary was one of consultation. Again, what we wanted to do was ensure that the various divisions within the department were maintained, yet we were able to reduce expenditures to comply with the needs that existed. We did that in such a way that as we go through this process of going forward with a strategy document, we will be in a position to divert funding from areas. If in fact the collective view of the consultation process is that government in the Department of Economic Development should be less involved in a particular division, then we would be in a position to divert those resources to, let's say, community economic development, or RDAs, if that is the collective view or in some other direction.
We wanted to have the opportunity to meet the expenditure reductions which were required. That was done through a consultative process within the department and within the jurisdictions that would be affected. Then to be, at the same time, in a position to go through a process of bringing forward an economic development strategy, and then to implement the policies that would work to make this all come about concurrent with the plan to move through the next four years, we involved the stakeholders in consultations to make a determination of what was doable within the department in terms of expenditure reductions.
MR. CORBETT: I guess the saying about kicking a dead horse here. There was a thought put forward by the minister before that the monies for RDAs were unchanged. If you look at it, the Actual for Development Programs is down $2 million. The questions are where is CED being funded from now, does it represent a funding shortfall for CED organizations and does the minister know what impact this is having on the ground? What impact is it having on the amount they can do their daily activity with, Mr. Minister?
MR. BALSER: Mr. Chairman, the RDAs have been funded for the last number of years through the Economic Diversification Agreement fund, and so that is where those fundings would have been derived. In terms of what expenditure reductions mean to community economic development, there are a number of programs that had a significant life history. Certainly the Waterfront Development Program has been in place for a number of years, and at this juncture, it was viewed that many communities that had sought funding through that program had done so, and that we needed to look at revising and reprogramming. That is what happened. We certainly intend to look at programs to see whether or not they are giving good value if they have run their course. We will be looking to put forward new strategies and new ideas.
MR. CORBETT: We are not getting anywhere with what is going on with the RDAs and the lack of funding and how this minister's budget has been slashed. It is so much doublespeak.
Let's go back to a topic that this minister was quite proud of doing last fall, and that was the axing of the Winter Works Program. This had an extremely detrimental effect on the area I service, and I would no doubt think a lot of other areas where members of this Legislature serve in areas of high unemployment. Yet, the minister's position was that the jobs were not sustainable, and that they served - I think his words were - no worthwhile benefit. Well, while they may not have been jobs that expanded much beyond the allotted monies spent out there, I would make the argument that the deeds done through those programs lasted much longer than the weeks of employment they provided.
Through the winter, we have seen, and I have had calls from many organizations that had problems with their community halls, their church halls and their firehouses, where we could have helped those people with Winter Works Programs. We could have helped people who were devastated by no work this winter, and are falling back on the Community Services rolls because this government didn't seem too eager to jump in and help these people.
There doesn't seem to be a flow chart or a graph that this minister can look at saying we saved this much money or this program was not worth that, the quantitative number is not there. It is something that this government seems to enjoy doing - picking off the poor and the disadvantaged in this province, because they are the ones, Mr. Minister, who suffered this winter, who were calling my office, as they were calling other offices throughout, looking, wondering where they were going to get money for heating fuel and so on. For some reason, your department - and I will say it - took the mean-spirited attitude that that was of no meaningful economic strata whatsoever for anybody to enjoy. You ripped that out, and saw it as no value.
Mr. Minister, I am going to tell you once again that the front end of it was wrong, and the back end of it was wrong. People in this province suffered because of your government's callous dealings with the people in this province who can least afford to be dealt a blow like
that. Now, the question is, how are you going to attack the summer employment for students this year?
MR. BALSER: Mr. Chairman, I would like to talk a bit about the Winter Works Program. I know when it came to light that the funding had been eliminated for that program, it caused a fair level of consternation. A little bit of history though, that line item only ever appeared in one budget, and it was the 1998-99 budget year. This was simply a decision that was taken by the previous government, and I believe in fact it was the right decision; the previous government in generating their budget which was ultimately defeated had eliminated that program, because they recognized that those programs don't create sustainable employment.
I don't appreciate the member opposite minimizing my response. What I said was, while it is a good program and it does create short-term employment in areas, it doesn't do anything to ensure that the jobs remain. Certainly that has been the history. There has been an abysmal failure of those jobs to translate into anything more than a bridging mechanism to get people from employment insurance benefits to employment insurance benefits. Now, certainly, in an area of high unemployment that is probably a good thing, but what we saw fit to do was to try and ensure that when you put money into job creation projects, it is designed to give people the skills that will allow them to find sustainable employment after the fact.
The analysis of programs, such as the Winter Works Program, has been long and detailed, and it is one of abysmal failure. What we simply did was continue on the same path that the previous Liberal Government had undertaken, and we did not fund that. We want to ensure that when the government puts money into programs, it is going to last.
In terms of the PEP program, the Summer Employment Program, we see that as an entirely different type of program. What it is designed to do is create employment opportunities, by and large, for young people who are looking to get the skills that will make them employable after they finish their education training. That has worked well, and it not only works well as it gives young people an opportunity to gather skills, it also creates an opportunity for non-profit organizations to have employment created so that they can run museums or they can run not-for-profit organizations.
What we did in terms in reducing the funding, and certainly we did reduce the funding, we decided that we had to spend the minimum money that we had more wisely. To ensure that that happened, what we did was we talked to our federal partners and said, we are going to ensure that the PEP program goes to those who are most in need, those who do not have an alternate source of funding, not-for-profit organizations. Municipalities that have historically used provincial programs such as this to offset their own costs in terms of creating employment, we said to them, you have the economic wherewithal to carry forward programs on your own; we are going to be more strategic.
The other thing that we decided to do was that if we were going to spend less money, we had to ensure that the money would go where it would do the most good. We clearly tied the employment program to areas of extremely high unemployment. I know members opposite often point to the fact that our government has failed to do anything of substance for Cape Breton, and I would just like to tell you some of the numbers that will be created through the PEP program, in terms of creating summer employment for students.
In Cape Breton County, last year under the Liberal Government, there were 177 jobs through the PEP program; this year because it is tied to unemployment figures, there are 250 jobs. In Inverness County, last year there were 36 jobs; this year there will be 54 jobs. In Richmond County, last year there were 21 jobs; this year there will be 37 jobs. In Victoria County, last year there were 25 jobs; this year there will be 58 jobs.
I would like to go back to the point that the Winter Works Program was never a line item in the budget until that one year. The reason it wasn't a line item, I believe, is because people could use it for partisan, political manipulation, and they could be the benefactor, if you will, by creating jobs in ridings that may be held by government people. I would note the numbers that I just explained to you. If the view is that we don't want to be partisan, that is certainly the case. Each one of these ridings is creating more jobs than under the previous regime, and it is because we have a fair and equitable process in place, it is tied to unemployment.
Do we believe the PEP program works? Yes. Do we believe that we put less money in it? It is obvious. What we have done now is that we have made sure that money will go where it does the most good, and that is in areas of high unemployment, to create opportunities for young people to develop the skills they need and, at the same time, support not-for-profit organizations that don't have a whole lot of alternatives. I believe, in spite of the fact that there is less money, we are doing it better.
MR. CORBETT: Mr. Chairman, again, I am sure that the members of the previous government, when they get up, will defend their position, as is their right. I am not here to defend their position. I disagree wholeheartedly with this minister when he talks about how they went about axing the Winter Works Program. They refuse to take any responsibility for what happened. We have just gone through estimates for Health, Education and Community Services. All of these ministries will be affected by people who don't have enough money to buy food. It is as simple as that, Mr. Minister. It is not always about government putting a job in there forever and a day. It would be great, but sometimes when situations are desperate, you have to do the short-term work.
That is what I think you and your government have failed to appreciate, the desperate conditions some of the people in this province find themselves in. You look at everything from a ledger perspective. The Murray Coolicans of this world run this government and it is a shame. It is a shame for someone who is as outwardly thoughtful and caring as you to
believe that the way out of this economic mess is listening to the likes of Murray Coolican when people in this province went cold and hungry this winter. You, Mr. Minister, like the previous ministers who were in this committee before you, have to take responsibility for that. To merely say, over there, that that government made mistakes is not good enough.
You are the government of today. I will tell you first-hand that it was a long, hard winter on a lot of people in my riding. The prospects are not much better for next year when we see increased pressures put on this group by your government, by Community Services cutting back money, by Education cutting back teachers, funding being cut out of Health. Those are real things. What you folks look at is what does the Metro Chamber of Commerce tell us. Mr. Minister, there is more to this province than the Metro Chamber of Commerce. There are people out there who are hurting. There are people, every day, going to food banks. Your Minister of Justice, today, gave a very laudable resolution about people putting in an extra row of vegetables to go to food banks. That is shameful.
You tell us that there is a new economy, that there is a bright future from Sable. Well, I am telling you, Mr. Minister, there are a lot of people in this province who aren't participating in that economy, not because they are lazy, not because they don't want to work, it is because your government is handcuffing them. Your government is not giving the right education, because the minister wants to cut. Your Health Minister is cutting his budget. Community Services is doing nothing, not a thing to help these people move forward. There is the odd talk about workfare.
Mr. Minister, you have to go and you have to fight, you have to put more monies in this budget to make it work for Nova Scotians. To simply cut and to say that the group over there, when they were in government, ruined this province, while it may have some basis in fact, it is not going to get you there. We have real problems, with real people hurting. Yet, the message I am getting from your government is give us a couple of years. Well, I am telling you, there are a lot of people out there who don't have a couple of years, they don't have a couple of days. You have to get in there, and you have to do it today. Talking about stuff down the road is nice, but it isn't going to cut it. You have to come up, you have to do it, you have to move forward, you have to help Nova Scotians today. You can't be putting it all off for sometime down the road, until somebody's ship comes in, because I am telling you, it is sinking. Thank you.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The hour has expired, right on the dot.
The honourable member for Cape Breton South.
We go until 6:51 p.m. this evening. You have 49 minutes today, and the next time we meet you will have another 11 minutes.
MR. MANNING MACDONALD: Mr. Chairman, I welcome the opportunity to engage in this debate on the estimates of the Department of Economic Development. Before I go any further, I want to react immediately to the comments made by the minister regarding the Winter Works Program. The Winter Works Program was never intended to be the be-all and end-all in economic development in our area or anywhere else, but it was a bridge for people who had nothing else to go to. It was a program that relieved the Community Services Department of some responsibility. It gave people who wanted to work the opportunity to be able to work. It bridged them to E.I., which I think was a good thing for people who needed that bridge. Again, it is not what we would have liked, but the government has cancelled that particular program, and there is nothing else to take its place. What we had was a cancelled program with nothing else.
We keep talking about long-term, sustainable jobs in areas of high unemployment, like Cape Breton. I have yet to see much evidence of any strategy that is working there. I see a Toward Prosperity document that I am going to talk about in a few moments. I don't think that Winter Works Program was a failure, and yes, it was budgeted for the first time last year. It was a program that the previous government was not comfortable with from year to year; it depended on the state of the economy, therefore, it was a line item that wasn't included until I decided to include it in my term as minister.
To say that a program like that wasn't beneficial, tell that to the people who got jobs at Loaves & Fishes for the winter, to go out and help some people who needed help and were able to make a few dollars doing it. Tell that to the people who had their housing units fixed or painted by good citizens of our area in Cape Breton in particular. I refer to Cape Breton in this instance, because that is where I am from and that is the area I know best.
I want to go back for a moment to the Estimates Book for the Province of Nova Scotia. In regard to Economic Development, it consists of a total of six pages. The ministerial statement on this document talks about, ". . . acts as the principal catalyst within government for economic development in the province." Well, God help us if that department is now the principal catalyst within government for economic development. I guess it is the engine that drives government policy, when it comes to economic development. Well, I suggest to you and to the minister that it is a two cylinder engine, if that is the engine that is driving the economy. I will get to the financial problem this department has in a few moments.
Lately I have been able to talk about this department, people are asking me where this department seems to be going, and I equate it to the department of no development not Economic Development, because there is no meat on the bones of your budget. There is nothing there to develop anything with. You don't have enough in this budget to develop an ice cream store, let alone anything else in this province.
To come out with the document, Toward Prosperity, which to me is nothing short of a bogus document, when you look at some of the success stories that are in here. Composites
Atlantic, I will refresh your memory, that was something that was done by the previous government. Parrsboro Metal Fabricators, they have been around for a few years. I will go over here to Silicon Island, which you mentioned in your preamble and made great fanfare about how you were creating the new economy in Cape Breton and referred to Silicon Island. Silicon Island was there before you were there, Mr. Minister. That is an initiative of the previous government, as well. Go over to Intertape Polymer, keep going to Secunda Marine, and I can go on and on.
This document is full of initiatives of the previous government, full of them. Toward Prosperity is a grand document, as you said last week in this House. It has a mission statement that, other than the plagiarizing of some initiatives in here, says nothing. It says nothing, because your department does not have the engine to do anything in terms of development in this province. Your government has been relegated to a status of an ineffectual department of the right-wing agenda of your own masters, some of the front bench people, one of them just entering the Chamber right now, who are certainly calling the shots for this government, not the Minister of Economic Development.
You referred to the student Summer Employment Program. I am just going to touch on that for a moment. When I finish, Mr. Minister, I would hope that you are taking some notes here, because there are going to be some questions on these items. I wanted to perhaps skirt over some of them right now so that I can set a tone here. The student Summer Employment Program, I understand has 1,500 jobs this year instead of 2,100 last year, and the catchment area has widened this year. I am not so sure why it has widened.
The only thing I can compare it to is, perhaps, you mentioned politics that come into play in some of these jobs, well, the widening of the umbrella, the catchment umbrella, is due to the fact that maybe some ridings in your own Party on the mainland are upset they weren't included before and are now going to be included. We are going to have to take a look at the numbers you quoted today, because when you are looking at 1,500 down from 2,100 and you are looking at more constituencies being eligible, I fail to see how industrial Cape Breton is going to benefit positively from those numbers that you gave us today.
As I said, there is not much meat on the bones here, and I think, Mr. Minister, your department has been gutted by the fiscal program initiated by the Finance Minister and the Premier and the real people who are running this government, the business community of metro Halifax.
In regard to your budget, and perhaps we might be able to get into a question here, in a moment, I see on Page 6.4 in the Supplementary Detail, the Development Programs. There is quite a difference in that. Let's go one above it, first, to Regional Operations, because I want to pursue this for the moment. There is a reduction there of $270,000, $280,000, in around there on that particular budget. Could you tell me where that money has
been deducted from? Mr. Minister, while you are on your feet, the next one too, Development Programs, I might as well ask about the two at once. There is quite a reduction there.
MR. BALSER: In terms of the first question, it is primarily related to reductions in staff, I believe positions were eliminated, so there have been funds reduced there. Again, in the second issue, the expenditure reductions in that were directly related to downsizing or elimination of programs.
MR. MANNING MACDONALD: To follow up on that, Mr. Minister, you say that is a reduction in staff. I would like to know what staff and where are they being reduced from? In regard to Development Programs, there is quite a difference in your reduction of programs. Would you mind telling me and members of the House what programs are being reduced with those figures?
MR. BALSER: In terms of specific staff reductions, obviously there are issues related to collective agreements and in addition to that there is ultimately restructuring required, so it would be premature to list a number of people or places where staffing has been reduced. What we have done is indicated that there are going to be staff reductions to account for that amount of funding. In many instances they will be through vacancies, but in the instances where they do involve a person, there has to be a process adhered to and honoured with respect to collective agreements and the need to transition smoothly through that.
In terms of programs that have been downsized or funding reduced, one particular area would be with regard to the trainings and benefits program; there was a reduction there of something in the neighbourhood of $60,000. The Community Opportunities Fund has been reduced by $850,000. The Waterfront Development Corporation has been reduced by $880,000. As I said in response to a question earlier on, many of those programs had been in place for a number of years, and it was viewed that it may be appropriate at this point in time to look at whether or not we could reduce or eliminate the funding of those programs with a view towards re-instituting new programs that would allow communities to take advantage of other situations.
MR. MANNING MACDONALD: Mr. Chairman, that answer certainly is not sitting well with me. In regard to the staff, you say it is premature. In other words, what you are telling me is that the staff have not been cut yet, even though you have budgeted for a staff cut. Is that correct?
MR. BALSER: Five of the six positions are vacancies, so in many instances, as I said in my answer to the previous question, if they involve vacancies, it is an easier process to deal with it, but when in fact you have people who have contracts and are members of a collective unit, you have to incorporate the process to allow for that.
MR. MANNING MACDONALD: Let me ask you a direct question regarding the Sydney office. Are there going to be any staff cuts in the Sydney office, and is the executive director going to remain in that position?
MR. BALSER: There are no staff cuts slated for that office, although it will be restructured to mesh with the strategy and so on, so at the end of the day, it is not appropriate to comment on what it will look like. There is a consultation process, but in terms of staff reductions, none are slated for that office.
MR. MANNING MACDONALD: So none are slated. So the existing complement that is in the Sydney office will remain? No expansion, I would be perhaps wishing for too much if I expected that, but at least the existing complement are going to stay, including the executive director. Is that what you are telling me?
MR. BALSER: There will be no staff reductions. As to what the administrative structure will resemble when the restructuring is finished, that has not, as yet, been determined. There will be consultation processes in place to allow for restructuring. So there are no staff reductions slated, but will the organization stay as it is now, that remains to be determined.
MR. MANNING MACDONALD: With all due respect, Mr. Chairman, the minister is dancing pretty nicely around that issue. Let me go to Page 6.8, Funded Staff. You have a reduction in your budget. The total department budget is almost slashed in half this year, yet the Senior Management, Strategic and Support Services calls for 38 funded staff, and I believe the forecast last year was 39.3, and it has been up to as high as 41.4. Are you intending to reduce any of the senior management in this particular department, given the fact that the budget has reduced your department to little more than an afterthought in terms of government support services, or government clout? This department doesn't have any funding left, and you have hardly touched the Senior Management, Strategic and Support Services. I am just wondering, what is the reason for that?
Before you answer, I want to tell you that in no way suggests that you don't have good people over there at senior management. I believe you have excellent people over there. I am just wondering, how can you rationalize keeping these numbers up with a cut in almost 50 per cent in your budget?
MR. BALSER: In answer to the question in regard to senior management, there will be staff reductions, but again, we have indicated they would be necessary to bring about compliance. Many of the vacancies will not be filled. In terms of the increased funding in that area as well, it is a direct result of the Labour Market Secretariat being moved into the Department of Economic Development. There is an increase in funding related directly to that and some staff were transferred over as a direct result. It is a bit of both.
MR. MANNING MACDONALD: Again, this is a work in progress, I guess, for lack of a better term. You were going to get rid of them, but you haven't gotten rid of them. You are going to transfer, but you haven't transferred. You still have 130.5 funded staff and a budget that is cut in half. That is very interesting.
I want to turn to the same page actually, Investment and Trade. Could you explain what the difference is in the forecast of the estimate for this year, in Investment and Trade?
MR. BALSER: There will be staff reductions in the Investment and Trade division. Again, a number of those would be through the expiration of term contracts or, in some instances, vacancies that would not be filled.
MR. MANNING MACDONALD: Does that mean, because of that you are reducing staff there, that you are curtailing activities in the Investment and Trade division, or winding down that division?
MR. BALSER: The quick answer to that would be no, it does not. What we will be doing is focusing our energies more strategically. As the member opposite well knows when he was the minister, they undertook a much more aggressive practice with regard to Investment and Trade and it has been very successful. A number of companies in Nova Scotia have been able to access new markets in New England. So, we recognize there is less money, but we have to ensure that there is a greater level of accountability, and a greater level of strategic planning with regard to that. We will have to do better with less money.
MR. MANNING MACDONALD: I can't understand, Mr. Chairman, how the minister's department is going to do better with less here, if he is going to be reducing. I guess cancelling the contracts of some very excellent people who did a good job for this province in Investment and Trade over the years. It is a new strategy I guess, but if the strategy was working before, as he says it was, the only thing I can figure out here is that this government, that he is part of, and I am not sure whether he shares that or not, but certainly his masters, the Minister of Finance, the Premier, the Halifax Board of Trade, those who want to get their hands on investment dollars outside of government, are probably calling the shots here again.
I want to go on to Page 6.7, I think the Provision for Losses on Doubtful Accounts. There were a number of accounts written off as required by law and required by Statute in some cases or required by agreements that were made by government, whether it was the previous government or the one before that or the one before that. As they expired, amounts were written off as per agreements that were made by governments. This government is responsible for all those agreements that were made by previous governments and they are responsible for any provisions in those particular budgets that call for write-offs, be they for performance, job creation, set targets that were met and other reasons. Are you telling me that this year that you have provided enough there - $2 million - to cover all of those?
MR. BALSER: Based on the information we have at this point in time, we feel that that is an adequate allocation of funds. I would like to go back to one of the comments that the member opposite made regarding how you do less with more and do it more strategically. One of the obvious ways is to ensure that our federal partners are brought into the game more often. One of the criticisms that seems to be widely held is that the previous administration failed abysmally in making sure that the federal programs that were available were accessed to the maximum and certainly the Team Atlantic trade mission that is being undertaken in the very near future to take 10 companies from Nova Scotia to Boston is one in which the federal partners are a very significant player and we feel that that is a good strategy, that when we can use someone else's money to take advantage of situations, that is probably in the best interests of the taxpayers of Nova Scotia.
In answer to the question, we feel that the amount of money appropriated in the budget at this point in time is adequate, although in many instances companies in this province can have a sad turn of events very unexpectedly and that happens to any administration.
MR. MANNING MACDONALD: So the minister took the long way around to answer that question, but what he is saying is that there will be no more than $2 million in write-offs this year. That is what you budgeted for. Obviously, your department bean counters must have looked at previous agreements and have come up with the conclusion that there should be no more than $2 million necessary for write-offs this year. Is that right?
Okay, let me go on then, Mr. Minister. You talked about the need to do something in areas of high unemployment like Cape Breton. You talk about the new economy. You talk about the offshore and what is needed in the offshore. You talk specifically about the Laurentian Sub-basin. As you know, if anybody bothered to tell you, in the Nova Scotia Petroleum Directorate or in Economic Development since you went there, we were working with P & P and the Deputy Minister of P & P at the time.
MR. BALSER: Yes.
MR. MANNING MACDONALD: I believe probably the lady is still there, I am not sure of that but, anyway, to move sections of the Petroleum Directorate to Sydney, the reason was that there was a private sector initiative under way to develop the Point Edward area, to position business people in industrial Cape Breton to take advantage of the offshore. We feel that in industrial Cape Breton we missed the opportunity in the Sable field because we were not ready, that the power was up here, centralized 300 feet from here, regarding the provision of goods and services. A lot of mainland companies received contracts for those goods and services. I don't begrudge them. They were ready to take the initiative. They were not ready in the Sydney area.
The Petroleum Directorate office was something that I felt could have been moved to Sydney. You and the Premier recently agreed with the initiatives of the partnership alliance
who suggested that wherever possible government should be doing some moving out into the hinterland of Nova Scotia, into other areas outside of metro Halifax. I am suggesting to you, Mr. Minister, and I want you to react to this, that the Petroleum Directorate would be an excellent place to start, at least a division of the Petroleum Directorate, to position the business entrepreneurs in the Sydney area and the labour force that is ready and able to take advantage of the initiatives that are coming with the Laurentian Sub-basin and also the other initiatives that are coming onstream with exploration off Cape Breton Island.
There are a number of service companies connected with the private entrepreneurs who are starting to develop Point Edward. They could use a hands-on approach from the Petroleum Directorate. It seems that when they start trying to access the directorate up here, they are just a little bit too far away in order to get to the front page of somebody's interest in doing something in Cape Breton. So would you consider, given the fact that the Premier has said that, yes, he thinks that may be a good idea, but he is not prepared to entertain it right now in terms of moving some government operations, would you not agree that it would make good sense to move some of the Petroleum Directorate operations to Sydney to prepare that area for the offshore exploration and the offshore development in the Laurentian Sub-basin?
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. Before I recognize the honourable Minister of Economic Development, there is a little too much chit-chat in the room and those who want to carry on conversations should carry them on outside.
MR. BALSER: Mr. Chairman, the member opposite's comment about perhaps I was not aware of the discussion about the possibility of moving the Petroleum Directorate office to Sydney and I believe that during the dying days of the last election campaign that the then Minister responsible for the Petroleum Directorate made that announcement relatively prematurely in terms of how things transpired, but certainly I was aware of it at that time.
In terms of whether or not we within Economic Development or the Petroleum Directorate are looking at relocating the office or some division of the office to Sydney so that it will be there when the Laurentian Sub-basin proceeds, I would say that certainly locating offices anywhere in the province, it could be equally argued compellingly that Guysborough County would like to have an office of the Petroleum Directorate or perhaps down on the South Shore.
Is there wisdom in looking at that at some point? Yes, but I believe what has to happen is that the businesses that want to take advantage of opportunity have to come together. Look at the experience of the Strait-Port Hawkesbury region in terms of what they were able to do once they saw the potential opportunities. I have had a number of discussions with companies in Sydney about where they can position themselves to take advantage and there are lots of opportunities. Once the capacity builds to a certain point, perhaps there would be wisdom, but certainly the Petroleum Directorate makes themselves available right
across the province. There were a number of meetings held in the Inverness area around the corridor resources drilling situation as there were also meetings held in Sydney; I believe there were two or three public forum meetings, talking with business communities about what is possible.
Would I dismiss moving an office out of hand? Not maybe in the long term, but it is certainly not something we have had conversations about within the department at this point.
MR. MANNING MACDONALD: Again, Mr. Chairman, those are just words. Again, there is no action. There is nothing happening. The minister talks about the problems with short-term employment in Cape Breton. Then he talks about the need for long-term new economic strategies for Cape Breton and other areas with high unemployment.
The minister conveniently, Mr. Chairman, mentions other areas of the province that have shown initiative. I suggest that that minister should know, if he does not know, that there is a group of businessmen in the Sydney area, entrepreneurs who should all get the Victoria Cross for trying to make money in Sydney, but they are. They are there and they are working hard. They have acquired the Point Edward lands to prepare, not to miss the next round of opportunities with the offshore, like they did with Sable because they were not ready. They have invested money. They have received the deed to a property which has an excellent wharf. They are now studying ways that they can draw activity to the Sydney area through the offshore and you are saying that not right now, that you are not considering anything, but maybe in the future.
I suggest to you, when the partnership met with you and the Premier last week, there were no such words spoken at that time that maybe in the future, but you are not thinking about it now. This is important, that that area of the province have a leg up on the next developmental stage of the offshore industry and that is off Cape Breton. These businessmen have done what they needed to do. Now it is time the government does what it needs to do and give them the support to do that.
I want to just go on for a moment, Mr. Minister, to the problem with the job strategy in industrial Cape Breton and what the government is talking about on the one hand and not doing on the other. I can tell you that the consultation process road that you are continuing to go down is vastly overrated, Mr. Minister. What is needed in my area and in other areas of this province outside of metro, some of the areas of high unemployment - and you don't have to look much further than Cape Breton to know that you have a serious employment problem there - there are two words you need here to do something about the economy in Cape Breton right now, and those two words are political will, to do something with it. When it is an emergency situation down there, you have to take emergency measures.
Mr. Minister, I am suggesting to you that if this Cabinet was serious about doing something with the partnership, you could provide a 10 year program. If anybody tells me that
a 10 year program is not where we should be looking, I suggest to you, when you are looking at unemployed miners, when you are looking at unemployed steelworkers, when you are looking at a number of people who have exited the construction industry in Cape Breton, that a 10 year project, making good commercial industrial wages would be just what the economy needs in Cape Breton. If you are looking for places to spend it, there are a whole shelf full of studies that have been done on how to spend money to shore up the economy in Cape Breton and provide good paying jobs.
Another two words. It is called environmental remediation. If there is ever an area on the face of this earth that needs environmental remediation, it is industrial Cape Breton. We have mine sites. We have parts of the Sysco property that a program was started but not completed. We have the tar ponds projects, where there is far too much talking going on there, and where there could be some actual work, and heaven forbid, some actual employment to clean the place up. You have the waterfront area abutting Sysco, which the Government of Nova Scotia owns, and whatever happens to the Sydney steel plant, that is not going to be part of any sale. I would hope not, because there should be areas there to be left to the new Port Authority that is being developed in the Sydney area to develop the Port of Sydney. That has to be cleaned up. There are segments of the Point Edward property that have to be cleaned up.
What I am telling you, Mr. Minister, is you don't have to look to this Toward Prosperity document that looks way off in the future and has this grand plan with all kinds of consultation. All it takes is political will to go to the federal government and tell the federal government that you are interested in participating in a major - and I am suggesting 2,000 people could be put to work in industrial Cape Breton on these projects for 10 years. The studies are there to prove it. You are looking at the Finance Minister. Well, tell the Finance Minister there is a serious economic problem in industrial Cape Breton that has to be looked at.
Now the Finance Minister can say, we don't have the money, but we are spending all kinds of money on studies. You are spending all kinds of money doing everything but actually creating a job. I am suggesting that we know there is an excellent labour force down there that can do this remediation work. You can set up a school of excellence in remediation work over the next 10 years in industrial Cape Breton. It has been suggested to this government. The partnership would like to see something like that happen. So there are two issues. One is the remediation aspect; the other of course is good employment aspect. I am not talking $6.50 an hour, I am talking good wages to parlay these people from their present jobs instead of trying to retrain them to be computer analysts at the age of 50 and 55, bridge them to retirement by placing them in positions that would provide good wages and also clean up the much-needed environment problems we have in industrial Cape Breton.
Mr. Minister, perhaps you can find the political will or the Cabinet can maybe have a serious discussion, once and for all, about getting down to the problem of doing something about the unemployment problem in industrial Cape Breton. I know you want to react to that, but I want to go back for one more moment to the Petroleum Directorate.
You mentioned in the dying days, and I suggest, Mr. Chairman, to the minister, it wasn't in the dying days. The dying days because of the frustration I had with the appointed representatives at the highest level in the government, slowing the process down because there was a great deal of uncomfortable feeling in the government that, heaven forbid, some part of this government was finally going to go to Cape Breton. They just couldn't deal with it, especially in the Petroleum Directorate. The Petroleum Directorate is housed right over here in the Bank of Montreal building. I suggest to you that the time is now to put some people on the ground in Sydney who can deal with these business people, who can deal with this labour component that is down there, ready and willing to take advantage of some of the benefits of the offshore. Not just talking about it, but actually working on it. Maybe you might want to respond to that.
MR. BALSER: Mr. Chairman, certainly many of the points raised by the member opposite are ones we obviously see as being major concerns. How do we deal with environmental remediation and ensure that Nova Scotians not only have a chance to create bridge employment, but also can develop an industry. There is a growing recognition that environmental remediation is going to be one of the major economic generators for the next decade. Certainly, the experience gleaned through remediation of the tar ponds and so on would be strategic. I agree also with the member when he says there has been far too much talk about remediation and very little action. So, we have a common point there.
He also spoke about the partnership alliance and their expressed interest in having government offices and department relocating. One of the things they said in our meeting was they recognize it is extremely difficult to simply uproot an existing department and cause them to move to another area. There are issues around family and housing and so on it goes. What they said, is that they saw a more appropriate course of action being putting forward a plan that would allow, as departments grew or had different needs to relocate or, in fact, to use the experience in Summerside and try to find a new federal government agency to locate. So those are discussions that are ongoing.
As I said in response to a question raised earlier about, would we consider at some point relocating a division of the Petroleum Directorate. If, in fact, the Laurentian Sub-basin, the dispute is resolved and we are moving forward, it may be appropriate that as the government grows we have a suboffice or a new office located there. But, as I said earlier, that argument can be made equally well for any other area of the province. If the economic development solution was simply a matter of uprooting existing government departments and relocating them in areas of high unemployment, we would have government offices spread
all over this province. That creates problems. I think what we need to do is ensure their sustainability.
The other thing that the member opposite talked about was political will. Political will is one thing. Political patronage is entirely different. I believe there is clear evidence that would say oft-times political will gets really confused around political patronage and political expedience. So, if we are going to make a decision about what is going to work for industrial Cape Breton or the Strait area or Guysborough or Pictou County or anywhere else, we want to ensure that it is made based on sound rationale and based on something that has supportable numbers. Certainly, there is evidence that would say there are opportunities in industrial Cape Breton.
As I said earlier, one of the things that we tend to do is focus on the negative, and there is a tendency to that. But, in industrial Cape Breton, there are many companies that have a very positive experience, and a positive story to tell. I know, too, when the member opposite was making some remarks, he talked about the strategy document and cited examples in there that were initiatives of the previous administration. What we are trying to do is celebrate success. We want to pass on the positive stories that do exist in this province. It is not an issue of partisan politics. It is an issue of where companies have had success, why they have had success and how we can replicate that. So if government introduces good policy, we should celebrate those success stories and build on that experience. So, one has to be careful about the comments they make and the criticisms they make because the intention in that document was simply calling to mind areas and companies that have had a good positive experience.
One of the difficulties we have in this province is that we don't always celebrate our success. We don't have the self-esteem that makes us competitive, and we are, like it or not, competing in a global economy where what happens in Indonesia or the Pacific Rim very directly impacts on businesses in Yarmouth or Isle Madame or anywhere else, because we have to be out there competing against every other jurisdiction. Those are the issues as I see them. Certainly some comments the member opposite made about relocating and addressing environmental remediation concerns and the need to put in place sustainable jobs, those are all good things, and we should all be working toward that goal.
MR. MANNING MACDONALD: Mr. Chairman, just a comment on that, really, Mr. Minister, I am not too concerned about what happens in Indonesia, but I am concerned about what happens in areas of Nova Scotia that have high unemployment, particularly Cape Breton. You know, you made a statement that it might be terrible to uproot some people in the Petroleum Directorate and actually move them to Cape Breton. We never hear that hue and cry about Cape Bretoners leaving Cape Breton to go somewhere else. That seems to be acceptable. I suggest to you, Mr. Minister, that if you looked within your own ranks, some of those people who are working there now may want to go back to Cape Breton because they are from there. They might feel that they have something to offer by doing something.
What I am saying is, please let's not wait until it is too late to bring in some people who can help the business people of industrial Cape Breton out, those who are trying to access the offshore industry in the future, and actually create some jobs, and create some much-needed employment there. Mr. Minister, let me say to you that it is never patronage to create good jobs. I am a firm believer that if we can create jobs in the remediation industry, that it is never patronage to create jobs. I know I don't have much time left, but I will be back tomorrow.
I want to turn for a moment to the Crown Corporation Business Plans. They show that the Sydney Steel Corporation and Sysco has not prepared a business plan for the 2000 fiscal year. With all the other problems that Sysco has down there right now, the government decided to tell them not even to put a business plan in this year. Here we are, we are into May, the government still owns the Sydney steel plant and there is no business plan. So, we have no idea what the government has in mind for the plant, if anything. I want the minister, perhaps, to react at some point about the fact that there is no business plan. I am wondering if there is any marketing effort going on now, while the government still owns it, or are they just waiting for the plant to run out of money, and then tell the last guy out to turn the lights out? That is a fear that many in our community have, including small business people, including people who do business with steelworkers.
Also, I want to ask the minister a couple of questions here. I will come back to the Sysco issue tomorrow, when I have a little bit more time. How much new money is the government prepared to put into the Sysco pension plan over and above what the previous government has put into the plan to enable Sysco workers to retire? Is there any consideration being given to their request for additional pension money to help them out, or if not, why don't you just tell them that instead of ragging the puck?
MR. BALSER: Mr. Chairman, with regard to his first comment around the lack of the business plan, I think everyone in Nova Scotia is very clear about what the government intends to do. If the operation can be sold as an ongoing entity, then the new owner will be putting forward his business plan, and would probably create that as a direct result of where they see potential opportunity lying. There is no real need to generate a business plan.
In terms of the actual financial situation of the operation, at this point in time Sysco is showing a positive cash balance, something that hasn't happened, historically, certainly in the last 30-odd years. Obviously, that is a good thing for the province. In terms of additional money, the Province of Nova Scotia has not had to put any additional operating monies into that plant, and we see no need to because we are very rapidly moving to the decision point on whether or not one of the proposals currently being reviewed by Ernst & Young is going to be acceptable to the province. If so, that will be a good thing for everyone concerned. If not, then we will be moving toward the other scenario, which is far less palatable.
We obviously see that as being the way in which we will move this forward. As far as whether or not they are undertaking new contracts, I think the member opposite is well aware that Ernst & Young, while they were in on the plant, they did in fact go out and get new orders, but they clearly got orders that had a high profitability and a reasonable turn-around time and which fit very nicely into the existing business plan. Are they continuing to market at this point? Only as long as they can turn those orders around in the time lines that have been dictated by the agreement that we currently have. Obviously, the new management is going to have to determine what is going to be needed in terms of whether they need to buy additional scrap metal or what exactly will happen as we move forward through this process. At this point in time, the government and I, as the minister responsible for Sysco, are quite pleased with the way things are going forward.
As far as the pension issue is concerned, we don't feel it would be appropriate at this point in time to talk about negotiations on the floor of the House; that is a comment that the member opposite, when he was Minister of Economic Development, often fell back on in response as a way of avoiding answering a direct question. We are in the process of discussing the issue with the unionized workforce, and obviously that will require some give and take, and at the end of the day, we hope that there will be an agreement that works for both parties, to ensure that once we get over the decision point around whether or not Sysco will remain as a private operation, we can deal with the unionized workforce's concerns and transition into a new operation that is free from government involvement.
MR. MANNING MACDONALD: In regard to the pension fund, if I heard you correctly, you are going to come up with an agreement that is going to be satisfactory, you hope, to both sides. That means that you are going to have to put more money in the pension plan, in order to accommodate that. I hope when you do that, that will be done before any sale or closure, because, Mr. Minister, I and a lot of other people in this province don't want to see another CN-Route Canada deal here, where the province unloads the plant to somebody else to close it. I don't want to see that happen, and I am sure that most fair Nova Scotians wouldn't want to see that happen.
If you are not intending to do something with the Sydney steelworkers to let some of them out of the industry with some dignity, then stop pussy-footing around with them and tell them that. We have had meetings where you have accomplished absolutely nothing. If you are going to put more money into the Sysco pension plan, then that fact will eventually come out anyway. I hope that is done. I hope there is no promise of additional money and then a quick sale takes place, and the steelworkers find themselves at the mercy of a new owner, without these issues being settled.
I just want to say that Ernst & Young, again, are not steel people, they are liquidators, they are headhunters. Their job is to try to get rid of the plant in whatever way they possibly can, and to make a few dollars for the government. We know that. They are not going to run the steel plant. They are not trying right now to do anything on marketing, the steel shop is
shut down, people are laid off. The situation is getting worse by the day because there is no plan, there is no marketing, there is nobody out trying to beat the bushes to shore up the CN contract, to perhaps get the orders in place for the fall rolling season. None of that is happening. So if anybody takes it, it is going to be a fire sale.
I just hope that the workers are looked after before that fire sale happens. They sure as hell aren't going to be looked after by this government after it happens. They know that. I hope there is no treachery going on here. I hope, Mr. Minister, that you are being honest with the steelworkers; I hope that your chief negotiator there, who as far as I am concerned is calling the shots here, has something that resembles a heart, when he is dealing with these people. These people are deserving of adequate pensions, particularly those who, no matter what happens to the Sydney steel plant, are not going to have employment there.
The last question I am probably going to have to leave you with today is, I want to know why this government was in such a hurry to give $150 million to two banks in this province, to cut a cheque and pay them off? I will come back to this tomorrow. I will give you a chance to come up with an answer to this one tomorrow. First of all, I want to know where the money came from to cut the cheque from them? It didn't come out of the sky. It was probably added to the deficit, like everything else connected with Sysco has been - $150 million was paid out. It is ironic that this government can see no problem in looking after two banks in this province to get them out of the way, so there will be no lifeline there, in terms of loan guarantees if Sysco happened to get a new order, but can't find any money to sit down with a pension plan issue with the employees.
You tell me, Mr. Minister, and this government, how anybody in Nova Scotia would agree that these two banks had to be paid off? Just had to be paid off now - $150 million to get them out of the way - and yet, you can't come up with any money for the Sydney steelworkers on the pension issue? That answer I would love to hear, right now or tomorrow, whichever.
MR. BALSER: Obviously there was a financial contractual obligation with those banks that had extended lines of credit for the ongoing operation of Sysco. They had an expiration date that everyone was aware of. The Province of Nova Scotia had an obligation to pay that bill, and we simply undertook to do that, as anybody would, in terms of honouring their financial commitments. It is not something that we could shirk off as a responsibility we wouldn't honour. As far as why it was paid, we had no choice. Did it go on to the deficit? Certainly it is a financial obligation of the province, and we obviously wanted to be sure that regardless of which of the two scenarios unfolds, we would be in a position to move forward with a clean slate. It was simply a decision taken because it had to be taken at that particular point in time.
MR. MANNING MACDONALD: Mr. Chairman, in response to that, Sysco or the government or anybody else connected with this wasn't looking for an increase in loan
guarantees, we were looking for those loan guarantees to be continued past March 31st, in case the two banks could see something happen in terms of a marketing effort that would perhaps give them a little bit more relief that their money was eventually going to be paid back. Why did the government rush into paying them back? I think that is what we have to find out here.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The time allotted for debate in Committee of the Whole House on Supply has expired. The committee will now rise and report progress and meet again on a future day.
The committee is adjourned.
[6:51 p.m. The committee rose.]