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Opposition leaders accuse premier of triggering Australian wine dispute

Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston spoke with reporters on Wednesday at Province House.  (CBC - image credit)
Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston spoke with reporters on Wednesday at Province House. (CBC - image credit)

Nova Scotia's opposition leaders are calling it a "laughable" coincidence that Premier Tim Houston was named in the case Australia brought to the World Trade Organization against the Canadian government, Nova Scotia, Ontario and Quebec.

Australia accused those governments of wine pricing policies and practices that contravene the 1994 General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.

The May 10, 2019, filing includes a 2014 exchange between Houston, then a rookie opposition MLA, and Bret Mitchell, the president of the Nova Scotia Liquor Corporation at the time.

"Do I understand correctly that the NSLC cut its markup that it had on local wine a few years ago and did that help the sale of the wine?" asked Houston.

"Absolutely," replied Mitchell. "We did cut our markup."

Australia said the exchange "confirmed that a reduced markup was applied by the NSLC to local wines as compared to imported wines and that this had helped to increase the sale of local wine."

Opposition members cautioned about questioning

There was a reference to another legislature committee meeting in 2015 to drive home the point it was no secret that Nova Scotia wines were being subject to lower government taxes at NSLC outlets.

During the current sitting of the Nova Scotia legislature, Houston repeatedly cautioned opposition members about questioning him and his government about its decision to create a new program to subsidize wine bottlers, suggesting it could draw the attention of Australia and trigger another trade challenge.

Speaking to reporters on March 7, Houston said "this whole trade issue started as a result of an exchange in question period on the floor [of the legislature]."

Houston "paused" the new program on Tuesday in order to redesign it to ensure it didn't disadvantage farm wineries.

Last Friday, he called any talk about programs designed to help Nova Scotia winemakers a "dangerous discussion," suggesting it could be "detrimental" to the sector in any trade dispute.

Asked by the CBC about being part of Australia's case, Houston responded, "These trade things are very sensitive, of course that's why I was trying to caution [the opposition]."

'Absolutely hilarious,' Liberal leader says

Houston did not recall the exchange with Mitchell.

His office later issued a statement saying "he had no way of knowing at the time that what the government of the day had put in place was not trade compliant.

"This submission was only one part of all the evidence Australia submitted, including evidence going back to 2006," said the email.

"It's absolutely hilarious," said Liberal Leader Zach Churchill in response to learning about the fact Australia was using Houston's decade-old questions to bolster its case.

Nova Scotia Liberal Leader Zach Churchill spoke with reporters on Wednesday, March 20, 2024.
Nova Scotia Liberal Leader Zach Churchill spoke with reporters on Wednesday, March 20, 2024.

Nova Scotia Liberal Leader Zach Churchill said Wednesday it's ironic the premier has warned opposition members to not speak about the trade dispute over wine. (CBC)

"I hate to have to point this out but the premier often now is giving the impression of being a very serious hypocrite.

"I think that's absolutely hilarious that he actually triggered this and has been warning us about not talking about this because it could trigger a trade complaint," said Churchill. "That is absolutely ironic and hilarious."

NDP Leader Claudia Chender called it "not surprising," suggesting the back and forth at the committee meeting "triggered" the dispute.

Nova Scotia NDP Leader Claudia Chender spoke with reporters on Wednesday, March 20, 2024.
Nova Scotia NDP Leader Claudia Chender spoke with reporters on Wednesday, March 20, 2024.

Nova Scotia NDP Leader Claudia Chender said the premier should have been open about any part he may have played in the trade challenge. (CBC)

"I think he should have come clean with that from the very beginning, if he wants to use that example then he should have said that on the floor of the House and been clear about that," said Chender. "But it is consistent with a pattern of obfuscation around this whole issue.

"It's increasingly difficult to rely on anything that the premier says inside or outside of the chamber but in this case it is, I would agree with [Churchill] — laughable."

The premier's office responded to the opposition leaders' comments by email.

"There is no evidence this was the trigger for the challenge."

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