Learning About Politics

Graham Steele’s new book (What I Learned about Politics, Inside The  Rise—and Collapse—of Nova Scotia’s NDP Government) is an easy and worthwhile read. It provides a troubling but valuable narrative.

Notwithstanding the lengthy title, Steele manages to tell his story in less than 200 pages. Really, it is two separate but related stories. On the one hand, we receive a primer on the mechanics of the legislature and government in theory, and in practice. Secondly, we see those mechanics in operation before and during the NDP government from spring 2009 to fall 2013.

Steele characterizes debate in the house as “thoroughly dysfunctional”. Members rarely pay attention to those who are speaking, preferring to check their phones for messages or chat with their neighbours. When they do tune in, it is usually to heckle. Most would prefer to be in their constituencies where the social skills that helped them to get elected can be deployed.

Those social skills do not necessarily accompany a natural gift for lawmaking. In fact, nothing about the electoral process either selects or trains people for their ability to develop and implement sound public policy.

From his party’s elected members, the premier selects a cabinet. These will represent at least a third—and sometimes more than half—of the government caucus. In theory, it is here that policy is developed and legislative proposals approved for submission to the house.

Steele reports that Cabinet was often a rubber stamp for legislation that ministers were barely able to understand. The real decisions were often formed and always managed by the Premier’s Office. News stories frequently tell of the icy grip of Prime Minister Harper’s office on proceedings in Ottawa. It would appear from Steele’s account that power was no less centralized under Premier Dexter. 

Steele is commendably honest in admitting his own misjudgements. Nevertheless, he distances himself from what he feels were the two fatal blows to the Dexter government.

First of these was the promise to balance the budget without raising taxes. As a practical matter it can be argued that this was unnecessary for the NDP to win the election but that is easier to say in hindsight. In fact, one of the first steps in government was to raise the HST by 2%. 

The second big problem was the MLA expense scandal. Steele himself was not a fan of all the unsavoury deals on expenses. He argues on behalf of the NDP that the rules had grown up under other governments. True enough, but their members, including Premier Dexter, apparently were not offended by them since they partook with equal enthusiasm. No effort was made to reform them before they were exposed by the auditor general.

What made all this particularly damaging was that they had campaigned as being different from the other parties. In office, they reinforced the negative impressions that many people have of politics.

Steele argues that voters can never really know in advance what they are going to get from a new government, and that there is not really much difference between the three provincial parties.

Actually, there is one rather big difference.. 

The issue that led to his resignation was the deal, negotiated in spite of his objections as finance minister, to provide an unaffordable wage settlement to the NSGEU, the most powerful union in the province.

How did that come about? Like many other matters, it was managed by the four top officials in the Premier’s Office: Dan O’Connor, Shawn Fuller, Matt Hebb, and Paul Black. Hebb’s career had taken him back and forth between the NDP and the NSGEU. The same is true of Fuller, who went back to the NSGEU after the election. According to Steele, it was Hebb and Fuller who led the deal-making with the unions.

This is outrageous. Imagine if the deal to hand Jim Irving $250 million had been made by a former (and future) employee of his working in the Premier’s Office.

Nova Scotians did not know these details at the time, but the deal itself confirmed their latent suspicion that the NDP was beholden to the unions, particularly public sector unions. Secondly, the communications in the last year of the NDP government were often distantly connected to the truth, adding to a credibility gap that had grown with each broken promise.

In my view, these factors were as important as those identified by Steele in contributing to the NDP’s resounding defeat.

Steele is clearly discouraged by the whole political process and does not paint an optimistic picture for the future. He perhaps underestimates the value of his story.

Current and future politicians will benefit from his explanations of the decisions he faced as a backbencher and especially as Minister of Finance.

The evidence from his book and his actions as minister is that he brought ability and integrity to his role. If we want better governments, we have to elect more people like that.


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