This is Day 99 of John Hamm’s reign in Nova Scotia and already the Tory premier, who’s been called callous and mean-spirited, says he feels misunderstood. “We have to be clearer in terms of telling Nova Scotians what we’re doing and why we’re doing it,” Hamm said in a recent interview at his office. The Tories’ first legislative session, which draws to a close this week, aroused the anger of unions, the disabled and even a religious order.
In the last few weeks, the new government has withheld $2.2 million in charity-destined casino profits; scrapped a plan to improve the accessibility of public buildings; outlawed a strike by the country’s lowest-paid paramedics; and cancelled a nursinghome licence sought by a congregation of Roman Catholic sisters. Hamm told a business crowd last week that the days of governing for special interests are over but said the business sector is a “big interest” rather than a special interest. His words and actions have sent a chill through the province’s social-activist community. “I think it will be quite difficult to get an audience,” said Pauline Raven, a child advocate from the from the Annapolis Valley, who says Nova Scotia’s child poverty rate is, “among the worst in the country.”I don’t think John Hamm is being as responsive as he was during the election campaign”.
Hamm bristles at labels, especially the tag that he’s a Maritime version of Ontario Premier Mike Harris. This is not Ontario. The solutions that would work in Ontario, in my mind, are not solutions that would work here in Nova Scotia”,sald Hamm, pounding his fists on his desk. “We are a different province. We have a different economy. We have different social requirements.We have a different culture.” Hamm says his critics don’t understand what he’s trying to do – get the province out of hock so it can afford good social programs.
The province’s October budget showed a $497-million deficit. About 940,000 Nova Scotians are Carrying a $10-billion debt, the highest per capita debt burden of any province. The government promises to balance the budget in three years and introduce a tax reduction in the fourth . Hamm has embarked on a massive program review. Every government activity – he’s tallied 1,126 programs so far – is on the table. And an independent committee dominated by business people has been assigned to suggest areas where the Tories can sink their knife. The premier said it would have been silly to go forward with new programs in a time of “restraint, noting that everything scrapped over the first three months in office was in the works but not yet operational. “We are very clearly concerned about access for the disabled. We are concerned about the programs charities deliver. We are concerned about all Nova Scotians who
need help,” Hamm said. But Hamm’s words ring hollow to Rick Clarke, president of the Nova Scotia Federation of Labour. That’s because the Tories signed a $2.2S-million deal to train 300 new call-centre workers for the Bank of Nova Scotia, which made more than $1 billion in profits last year. “That money could have gone to charities or the disabled,” said Clarke, adding that the bank can afford to train its own workers.
Hamm refuses to apologize for the deal. Training was a campaign promise, he says, and the new jobs will pay for themselves in new taxes within three years. “1 am concerned about the fact that the majority of Nova Scotians seem to continue to think that we have written a cheque to the Bank of Nova Scotia, which is clearly not the case,” said Hamm, banging his desk again. “1 think that’s a good investment. And we will continue to make those kinds of investments.”