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JIM VIBERT: Burning rubber could ignite fiery backlash

Burning tires.
Burning tires.

The Nova Scotia Liberal government may have unwittingly awakened a docile flock that, when agitated, can be a dangerous beast. The unwelcome wake-up arrived in the form of provincial approval of a tire burning proposal by the Lafarge Canada plant at Shortts Lake.

What the government doesn’t seem to remember is the vehemence with which Shortts Lakers will defend their turf, nor does it understand the potential political power resident in the summer enclave.

In one fell swoop, the government united an oppositional force of environmentalists, not-in-my-backyarders, well-connected professionals, and business people with money and influence.

To make matters worse, the decision aligns the Liberals with a big multinational corporation against a homegrown Nova Scotian business. The burning rubber will be diverted from a recycling business in Burnside that has no spare tires.

When did “burn, baby, burn” replace “recycle, reuse, reduce?”

If more downside is needed there’s the spectre of hypocrisy, an ugly trait that emerges during the move from the legislature’s opposition to government benches. Back in 2008, the last time the tire-burning proposal was beaten back, then-opposition Liberals stood with the people and introduced a bill to prohibit the practice.

Need more? Lafarge has lost similar bids to burn tires elsewhere in Canada.

The decision reinforces the Liberals’ nasty reputation for a “who cares” attitude on the environment, earned by an attachment to clear cutting, salt caverns filled with natural gas — a stone’s throw from Shortts Lake — and foot-dragging on climate change.

This isn’t a fight the Liberals would have picked before the election. Maybe they think the dog days are a safe time to try to slip it by. Except, summer is the time to mobilize opposition at Shortts Lake. People are there in July not January.

The government’s nod to a tire-fired kiln seemed to come out of the blue when in fact it was aimed at the blue. Southern Colchester County, where the plant is located, is genetically predisposed to vote Tory.

But if the Liberals think the damage will be contained within that area and the Colchester Musquodoboit Valley seat they’ve never won, they are mistaken.

Year-round residents at the lake vote in Colchester-Musquodoboit Valley, but a look at most of their properties will tell you their tentacles reach well beyond. And summer residents hail from Truro, Halifax and everywhere in between.

The Lafarge cement plant is grudgingly accepted by Lakers only because, in all but a handful of cases, its presence predates theirs. When the cement maker planted itself at the northwest corner, the lake was sparsely dotted by rustic summer retreats.

A boat tour today reveals a lake entirely encircled by a mix of the opulent, understated and old, leaning legacy structures. In the interest of full disclosure, one of those leaning legacy cottages has been in my family since the Stanfield government.

Regardless of political affiliation, there are Lakers who can pick up the phone and immediately harangue movers and shakers who have walk-in privileges to Premier Stephen McNeil’s office.

The Liberal government might claim it is immune to pressure from the well-connected, but that’s a joke with no punchline.

So far the burn permit is defended only by the Environment Department and its minister, Iain Rankin. If opposition mobilizes, as it did 10 years ago, the decision could evolve from a local problem to a throbbing headache around the cabinet table.

As a newly re-elected government, the Liberals may well stand behind the decision, confident that the fallout will be muted or gone in four years.

They have been convinced it is the right call by their public service advisors, an indication they are still ensconced in the insulated, comfortable cocoon that creates a dependence on the bureaucracy.

Life in that bubble nearly cost them the government in late May. It’s the cabinet’s job to challenge its senior advisors. Demand options and sincere efforts to gauge legitimate public interests. During its first term, the McNeil cabinet didn’t seem to understand that role or, at least, didn’t play it well.

If that’s not the cabinet’s job, who’s is it? And if it isn’t done, Nova Scotia doesn’t need an elected government at all. Everything can be turned over to the permanent, unelected public service.


Jim Vibert spent 10 years as a political reporter and editor with the Halifax Herald; and 14 years with the Nova Scotia government where he set up Communications Nova Scotia.

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