Progressive Conservative premier Tim Houston was sworn in Tuesday, alongside his team of 18 cabinet ministers. The new cabinet includes seven women, new roles and Nova Scotia’s third white MLA overseeing African Nova Scotian affairs.
Together the 19 politicians make up Nova Scotia’s executive council; Houston is president of the council, as well as minister of both trade and intergovernmental affairs. The executive council under ex-premier Iain Rankin totalled 16 members.
Houston picked his 18 ministers from the 31 PC MLAs who were elected on August 17, all of whom are white. Because cabinet ministers are appointed by the premier, Houston could have chosen someone outside his caucus for the role of African Nova Scotian affairs minister, giving him the ability to select someone who is African Nova Scotian for the job. Instead, Houston appointed Pat Dunn, who is also minister of community, culture, tourism and heritage, to oversee African Nova Scotian affairs and the office of equity and anti-racism.
This is the third time a white MLA has held the African Nova Scotian affairs minister title since the post was created in 2003. Liberal politician Tony Ince, who is Black and has a seat in the legislature as the MLA for Cole Harbour, last held the position.
When asked if he had considered going outside the party to select an African Nova Scotian for the role, Houston said he “considered a lot of options.”
“The conclusion I reached ultimately is that our democracy works best when the people that are elected are put into positions of accountability,” Houston said. “Pat Dunn, with his work over the years, he’s the right person in our cabinet to make sure the views of the community are respected and heard.”
Dunn, who is 71, has represented Pictou Centre four times since 2006. He previously served on the cabinet of Rodney MacDonald’s government.
Only an office for mental health
The new cabinet divided the health portfolio into pieces. Nova Scotia now has a department of seniors and long-term care, overseen by new minister Barbara Adams, which is independent from the health department. Newcomer Michelle Thompson, a registered nurse who was CEO of a nursing home in her home riding of Antigonish, is the health minister, and she will also oversee the new office of physician recruitment.
During the election campaign, the PCs made an unambiguous promise to create a department of mental health. “A PC government will include a Minister of Addictions and Mental Health to ensure there is someone at the highest level of government whose sole responsibility is to oversee programs, wait times, professional recruitment and long-term funding, separate from the current Department of Health,” reads the July 26 statement touting Houston’s plan for improving access to mental health care. “The plan includes: A separate department dedicated to mental health and addictions.”
Today, however, the expected department was unveiled as an office, a lesser form of government bureaucracy, and one that Rankin created in February to give mental health more attention. Taking care of the office of mental health and addictions is now another responsibility that Brian Comer, the new minister of youth and communications, has on his plate.
Houston defended the decision to under-deliver on the campaign promise. “We talked about a department, but what we really talked about was a focus and making sure there was someone at the highest level of government… accountable for making sure people can access the addictions and mental health support they need,” he said.
Houston appointed seven of the nine women in his caucus to cabinet, including legislature newcomers Thompson, Beckry Druhan, Jill Balser and Susan Corkum-Greek. All three returning women MLAs (Adams, MLA for Eastern Passage, Pictou West MLA Karla MacFarlane and Kim Masland, the MLA for Queens) secured spots in cabinet.
“I learned this morning that that’s the highest number of female ministers the province has had. I didn’t realize that,” Houston said.
Housing and rent control
The premier appointed Kings North MLA John Lohr to be minister of housing and municipal affairs. Lohr has represented the region since 2013. “I realize the housing file is extremely important to premier Houston. We ran on a platform of health, but Mr. Houston has told me this is his second-most-important file right now,” Lohr said.
New minister Lohr was asked by reporters his thoughts on rent control in the context of bridging a gap until the province’s housing supply increases, but he did not give a direct answer. He says he acknowledges a “huge shortage” in housing units.
When the premier asked what he'll do for those who are struggling with evictions and rising rent, Houston says he shares their concerns, but didn’t directly say what his government will do to address the housing crisis. “There’s a variety of solutions we’re talking about, and it’ll be a focus. But there’s no quick fix,” he said, “the solution is going to take time. But my cabinet feels the urgency.”
Allan MacMaster has been named deputy premier and minister of finance. He’ll also oversee Gaelic affairs and labour relations. Karla MacFarlane is the new minister of community services, and is also responsible for status of women and the office of L’nu affairs. Becky Druhan is now minister of education and early childhood development.
When Iain Rankin was premier, there was a department for labour and advanced education, and an office devoted to immigration and population growth. Under premier Houston, these responsibilities have shuffled; Jill Balsey has been appointed minister of labour skills and immigration, while Brian Wong will be minister of a separate department of advanced education.
Brad Johns is Nova Scotia’s newest attorney general and justice minister. A former city councillor who has a Bachelor degree in history from Mount Saint Vincent University, Johns is not a lawyer. In Nova Scotia, however, that isn’t dealbreaker: Johns’ Liberal predecessor Randy Delory was also attorney general without being an attorney.
Greg Morrow has been named minister of agriculture, and Steve Craig is the new minister of fisheries. Kim Masland will oversee the department of public works, which was formerly transportation and transit.
Tim Halman is the new minister of environment and climate change. He’s also been appointed chair of the treasury board. Tory Rushton is the minister of natural resources and renewables, which combines the two formerly separate departments of lands and forestry, and energy and mines.
Colton LeBlanc is taking on the public service commission and internal services as well as being minister of Acadian affairs and Francophonie. LeBlanc was the sole MLA to complete his swearing-in in both English and French.