[Disclosure: As a reporter, I haven’t much directly covered the legislature, and don’t believe I had met Graham Steele in person until this April, when I asked him to be part of the promotional video that launched the Halifax Examiner, and he agreed. He very kindly gave me an evening of his time, and said nice things about me on the video. Then, once the site was launched, Steele was one of the people who gave an unsolicited $500 “Founder” contribution to my business. I thanked him, of course, but have not otherwise discussed it with him. I don’t believe Steele’s support for the Examiner colours what I have to say below, but readers can judge that for themselves.

Update, 6:30pm: After writing the above, I remembered that Steele and I both addressed the same class at the King’s Journalism School last fall. We’re both addressing the class again next week.]

In his book, What I learned About Politics, Graham Steele analyzes how the political system works, what motivates politicians, and how those motivations play out on the floor of the legislature and, more importantly, in the districts, the premier’s office and the political parties. Steele has a conversational tone that is easy to read, and writes with good humour and goodwill towards most of his subjects. The book is a good primer for those who haven’t given much thought to our political system.

Steele uses many examples to demonstrate how and why the system is broken, but he is at his best when he explains the out-of-control growth in MLA expenses: start with arcane and outdated rules, add in a political inability to directly address the issue of legislator pay and a decision-making process that rewards secrecy, and it leads necessarily to disaster. I’ve seen many similar scandals in my years as a reporter—the contextual history of the MLA expense scandal is eerily reminiscent of the contextual history of Halifax’s concert scandal—but I’ve never seen the process explained as succinctly and coherently as Steele explains it.

Steele positions himself as the unacknowledged hero in the story. He says he warned his colleagues of the problem “almost as soon as I was [first] elected in 2001. I looked at the system and knew it was wrong. I objected at caucus meetings and caucus retreats.” Three years later, he was the person who tipped Canadian Press reporter Murray Brewster to a secretly passed increase in the MLA mileage allowance. In 2005, all three party leaders had agreed to a plan of departing premier John Hamm to pass another increase in MLA allowances, but Steele threw a shoe in the procedural machinery, earning the wrath of Darrell Dexter. The incoming MacDonald government didn’t further increase expense allowances, but it did keep the entire edifice in place and avoided any attempt to reform it.

“It should have been obvious when I spoke up in 2005, and well before, that the expense system was out of control,” writes Steele. “It could so easily have been corrected, but leadership was lacking on all sides. The system was cozy and everybody liked it that way.”

Steele says that through the years he had “privately encouraged the auditor general to audit MLA expenses.” When auditor general Jacques Lapointe’s report on MLA expenses came out in 2010, notes Steele, it covered just the years of the MacDonald government, 2006 through 2009, but by then the NDP was in power and the Dexter government took the political fallout.

What I Learned About Politics isn’t a tell-all book—Steele sprinkles a few juicy tidbits throughout, but he (unwisely) doesn’t break cabinet confidentiality and (wisely) protects the names of those who don’t deserve to be brought into the fray. In the former category, it would have served Nova Scotians well had Steele explained in detail how cabinet dealt with the Maritime Link and Irving Shipyard issues. In the latter category, Steele tells a heart-wrenching morality tale about his unintended betrayal of a constituent facing a drunk-driving charge.

Neither is the book an “attack on Darrell [Dexter],” as Howard Epstein claims. I didn’t read the book that way, in any event. And when I called Steele up today to discuss the book, his characterization of Dexter seemed sincere: “Darrell is a well-meaning person working in a broken system in difficult times,” he said. Steele doesn’t even fault Dexter on the issue he resigned over—the contract with NSGEU. “I never said that Darrell was wrong,” he explains. “He was days away from an election call, and [corrected quote, 8pm] a health care strike would have caused a lot of pain to a lot of people. Maybe he felt he had to make the deal [with the union], but I disagreed, and a cabinet minister who disagrees with the premier has to resign.”

So what is the book? On one level What I Learned About Politics is the product of a thoughtful and intelligent man recounting his journey through politics, as seen through the lens of human fallibility. Politics is after all a human institution, and like all human institutions it is fatally flawed. Steele gives us all the reasons politics is flawed and doesn’t give us much hope for reform. He gives this advice to those thinking the solution is simply to elect better people to the job:

The fact is that our politicians are us. There isn’t a better, more perfect, more angelic version of us. The people who are elected to office used to be us, and once they’re in office, they respond in human ways to the pressures of the job. You would do the same if you were elected.

Yes, you would.

Steele gives a couple of faint suggestions for radical reform of the system, including appointing members of opposition parties and even non-politicians to the cabinet, but it’s hard to see how that would ever come about or if it did if it would really make much of a practical change. It’s impossible for a thinking and feeling person to read the book and not come out of the experience a little bit depressed.

Is, as Epstein says, the observation that politics is a flawed human institution “glib”? Perhaps. But it’s worth making all the same. In this hyper-commercialized world of Potemkin perfectionism where bullshit passes as deep thought, it’s good to see someone talking about human fallibility and frailty. Isn’t that what all great art does? It’s especially good to see human frailty talked about in a local context and about people we know.

Still, Steele misses the very point he so cleverly and sympathetically leads us to: what comes after you acknowledge the failed human system of politics?

There’s another level to What I Learned About Politics that looks at the particular place of Nova Scotia in the world, and it’s all summed up in one paragraph on page 162:

The truth is that it was never within our government’s power to shield Nova Scotia from the recession. Nova Scotia is a tiny piece of the continental and global economy with limited natural resources and a dependence on imported fossil fuels for energy. A small change in interest rates or the US dollar exchange rate has more impact on the Nova Scotia economy than every combined tool available to the provincial government.

Steele is saying here skillfully what I’ve been saying inartfully for a while. In my typically blunt fashion, it pisses people off, but here’s the harsh reality: by North American standards, Nova Scotia is a poor place. It’s a mostly barren rock with a crappy climate sticking out in the middle of the ocean where it doesn’t have the geographic proximity to large population centres to justify much in the way of industrial production or trade. We’ve destroyed the ground fishery, climate change is threatening to soon destroy the bottom-feeding lobster fishery, and we’re doing our best to destroy the forests. The offshore oil and gas fields provided a trickle and are now mostly dried up. Fracking is a fool’s game for lots of reasons, but foremost because there’s nothing much to recover down there in the first place. There isn’t a heck of a lot left.

Our collective response to this situation has increasingly been frighteningly misguided, as we defer to a frankly stupid business class. We pretend that downtown Halifax can become “the next Singapore,” as if no other place on Earth is clever enough to think of subsidizing the financial industry that services tax cheats and schemers who caused the last global financial blow-out. We celebrate our time zone, as if people in India or wherever are incapable of working off the 9-5 schedule. We lavish immeasurable praise on each and every start-up business as our economic saviours; the owners of these companies may indeed be smart and clever people, but smart and clever people are hardly unique in the global economy. We blame ourselves for our perceived failures, buying into the Harperist rhetoric that we have a culture of defeat, and if only we would get a better attitude, we’d be wealthier. So we toss around a bunch of meaningless slogans—be bold!—but since the slogans don’t make us wealthier, we smack around those who are off-message, damning them as naysayers and malcontents. “It’s now or never,” we tell them, better get on page.

Consider this: in his book, Steele never once mentions the new convention centre, which rivals the Irving subsidy as the costliest project of the entire NDP mandate. “I didn’t deliberately leave it out,” he told me on the phone today. “I just didn’t feel the need to mention it, because all three political parties were in agreement.”

Exactly.

That political agreement speaks to the deference Nova Scotians pay to the business class, and it will result in disaster. Oh, the province will be able to handle the loss of a few hundred million dollars without much trouble—it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the existing $15 billion debt, mostly run up by past crazed “silver bullet” economic development schemes. But the city of Halifax will be hit hard when the overblown and dishonest economic impact projections of the convention centre don’t materialize. The city may not experience actual bankruptcy, but services will be cut to the bone, making this a miserable place to live—just the opposite of the fantasies the urban fetishists dangle before us.

So what should we do instead? Muddle through and take care of each other.

Once we accept that by standard definitions we’re a poor province and there’s nothing we can do to fundamentally alter that reality, we can come to some different ways of thinking. To begin with, we’re actually not that poor: we have a high quality of life and even by standard definitions, while we’re poor compared to other Canadian provinces, we’re fairly wealthy in global terms.

We can’t better position Nova Scotia in the globalized economic game we’re trying to play—someone else will always beat us to the tax subsidy basement—but we can do a lot to improve our quality of life. We can better protect our environment. We can better educate our young people, without saddling them with hopeless debt. And we can recognize that a lot of people are left out in our rush to embrace the globalized economy, and those people are indeed suffering. We need to take care of each other. And that means well-funded safety net programs, funded by healthy taxes.

Early on in What I Learned About Politics, Steele outlines three successes the NDP had in opposition.

In the face of increasing auto insurance rates, the party advocated public insurance and got so much traction with the issue that after the Conservatives lost their majority in 2003, they reformed insurance laws such that even though insurance remained in private hands, rates fell back to reasonable levels.

Nova Scotia cruelly charged residents of nursing homes the full cost of their health care. In 2002, Dexter himself initiated the campaign to end that injustice, and in the face of overwhelming public agreement with the NDP campaign, the Hamm government in 2004 adopted the policy as their own and passed the legislation providing public health care to nursing home residents.

The NDP also led the charge on taking the tax off heating fuel, incorporating it into the party platform for the 2006 election. Winning a smaller minority government, the Conservatives again adopted the NDP’s policy as their own, creating an eight percent rebate on heating fuel.

These three NDP successes in opposition made huge differences in people’s lives. Because of the NDP, people suffered less, and lived better. I don’t know what else we can ask of politics. This is exactly what “taking care of each other” looks like.

But I can’t think of anything of remotely the same scale that the NDP did when it had a majority government and could theoretically do anything it wanted. Public auto insurance was off the table. Reducing usurious pay day loan rates wasn’t even discussed. Forget about old-fashioned lefty notions like a guaranteed wage.

Measured by the good it did for people, the NDP was better in opposition than it was in power.

I put that to Steele today, and he objected. “The book isn’t about this wing of the party against that wing of the party,” he said. “I explained how being in opposition is the worst preparation for being in government, and this is not something unique to the NDP.”

As Steele sees it, the political process is corrupting, and will result in pretty much the same outcome no matter who forms the government. He may well be right. Failed human institution and all that.

What to do about the situation is what’s at the heart of the conflict between Epstein and Steele. Steele sees himself as a responsible adult in an unworkable system, himself corrupted by the process, but drawing a few lines in the sand: over MLA expenses, over union contracts. Epstein, meanwhile, takes the unworkable system for granted, but thinks it doesn’t necessarily have to lead to the same outcomes. You can push here and there and get something worthwhile.

Party and ideology matter to Epstein. That may be naive or foolish, or even sometimes lead to bad policy. But I don’t know what else has worked in this province.

Tim Bousquet

Tim Bousquet is the editor and publisher of the Halifax Examiner. Twitter @Tim_Bousquet Mastodon

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  1. Well said, Dennis. “Going down in a blaze of glory on a truly socialist platform” that reflected what the majority of NDPers who had put years of their lives into getting the Party into a majority position would have been so much easier to live with then what in fact happened.

    Graham’s insistence on not blaming Darrell is perhaps honourable, but, come on, what if we’d had a real leader, not afraid to be challenged by opinions different from his own and the unelected backroom boys? Perhaps we would still have lost the chance of a second mandate, but at least many people, including you I suspect, would have had the satisfaction of having known that we had tried to live up to our ideals. And it might have been an inspiration for those to follow.

    Naive, perhaps, but I refuse to think that we couldn’t have done things differently.

  2. I agree with most of your correspondents. I would sooner have seen the NDP go down in a blaze of glory on a truly socialist platform than collapse in self-serving timidity looking like a lot of grey Liberals.

    But “celebrate our time zone” Tim? I don’t get it. Our time zone is an hour ahead of that of the entire Eastern Seaboard and robs many of us, who watch the best TV programs, of an hour’s sleep. It’s time we took a serious look at what that does to our efficiency in the schools and at the workplace.

  3. I’m only half way through the book but I have to say I think your review was very soft. I find Steele as presented in the book a very strange fellow. Time and again he points to problems with the Premiers management style and positions but refuses to take a firm stand against these practices always coming back to say he supported Dexter. In the Helen MacDonald affair he says he also felt she had to go but stood back from any effort to tell her so and in fact seems to continued to play the roll of the loyalist.Even when he resigns from cabinet on a matter of principle he then turns around and says that perhaps Darrel was right. Supports I’ve talked to and heard speak agree that Darrel as Premier was a disaster, Steele points out many, although not all, the reasons this was so. It is in in fact an attack on Dexter but again Steele refuses to stand up and say so.

    I have a questions for Steele, what’s a politician who doesn’t get elected? There are many answers of course but one thing they are not is a politician. So to castigate members for being concerned about getting reelected makes no sense. He makes it clear that he himself worked very hard to do just that.It’s an important part of every politicians job to get reelected otherwise why run in the first place.

    The books does provide some useful insights into how governments and politicians function on a day to day basis it says much less then it could have and what has been left out is likely more important then what was provided.

  4. Really hope Gordon Fraser’s business isn’t shut down by this bureaucratic nonsense. I seem to remember a small dairy store in the Bridgewater area that was shut down roughly 10ish years ago for similar “safety violations.” They had amazing cheese and a friendly little shop on a side road, but were forced to close due to narrow safety rules designed for much larger, industrial dairy manufacturers. It was a shame, and a result of the same blind adherence to protocols that completely ignore the unique qualities of very small, local businesses.

    Also, lol at Steve Parker’s pro-fracking article:

    “We can expect more of the techniques they successfully used, including packing public meetings, shout-downs, and constant messaging in all forms. Countering these techniques will require much effort.

    Mostly though, convincing the public to accept needed change is about dialogue, organization, hard work and respect for the concerns and issues raised by others.”

    So when the public is against fracking they’re shouting people down, but when the noble and responsible pro-frackers do the same it will be “dialogue, organization, hard work and respect.”

    What patronizing BS.

  5. Disclosure: I have been a public servant for 7+ years (Hamm/MacDonald/Dexter/McNeil governments).

    My observation is that the veil of secrecy came down over government at approximately the same time as Dexter took over. I say Dexter, because it appears that he tried to control everything from his office, which is not the best way to run an operation. Instead of making decisions based on the many perspectives presented by staff and by the community, the final decision often appeared to be pre-set based solely on political considerations. Any good business owner knows you don’t have one decision maker – it stifles the entire organization and takes all ability to accommodate your customers (in this case, taxpayers) from the people who are actually providing the services. Dexter’s government was so focused on keeping every single voter happy that they made nobody happy. They did not lose the election because of the economy. They lost because EVERYTHING was about the messaging and the branding. Everything. Sometimes you have to do things people won’t like now for the generational benefits (reducing greenhouse gases comes to mind).

    If we want to get anywhere in this province, we need to learn how to work together – communities, government (both administrative and political), individuals. And fast.

    1. Krista, one of the first things I noticed when Dexter took over was, as you say, “a veil of secrecy came down” and it appeared that Dexter was basically using the Stephen Harper model of governance; consolidate communications and you consolidate power. I’m not sure Mr. Dexter came up with this on his own. More likely it was his political staff. Dexter and the NDP’s very negative election campaigning also seemed very Harperesque to me.

      1. Very many correlations between the two in terms of management style. Too many, really. At least this government doesn’t appear to be so message-centric… It was getting to the point where I didn’t want to say anything about my job to anyone in case I said something I shouldn’t, even if it was a good thing that people should know about. Especially the good things, because I wouldn’t have been branding it properly…

  6. I think I would not be betraying a confidence to tell this story.

    I was sitting around my house in the Spring of 2013 when this guy calls up and introduces himself as Graham Steele. I had no idea who he might be. He went on to say he was an MLA and had been thinking about my call for MLA constituency offices to be accessible. In my own unforgiving way, I had been on this mission for at least 3 years.

    Then this Steele person proceeded to lay out a campaign for the next several months to get the House of Assembly Management Committee to vote against their self-interest on this important issue. This campaign was high-minded, In astonishing detail and so convoluted that I had difficulty grasping the details.

    When I Googled him and learned a bit of his story, I was puzzled about why he might have an interest in a small miscarriage of justice.

    But I love an adventure, so I signed on, albeit with some skepticism, but it all proceeded exactly, and I mean exactly, as planned.. Three things come to mind:

    1. Once in a great while, someone comes along who does the right thing for it’s own sake.
    2. Even rarer is a guy who is smart enough to make it happen, who can subordinate his own interests for the common good.
    3. This affirmation of democracy is easily the best thing the NDP accomplished. Who will remember the tax on heating oil? Like LBJ and voting rights, this is the thing that will be remembered. Even Graham doesn’t know.

    At the time of the rule change, I wrote to thank Graham.

    It’s hard to keep up with your many incarnations. Back in the spring when you outlined your campaign for accessible constituency offices you were un-ministerial and prescient. The plan was worthy of Krishna and suitably diabolical. A thousand thanks for conceiving it and nudging it along over the rough spots. I can’t stress enough how important it is for people with disabilities to be accepted on equal terms.

    And now Nova Scotia, you have a Speaker with a wheelchair. Proof that, with a little encouragement and the help of a man of exceptional good will, you can do the right thing.

    I thought Graham might have a future in politics, but it isn’t meant to be.

    But I am done with apple-picking now………………..

    Gus Reed

  7. Exemplary disclosure from you Tim.

    No wonder you’re vigilant about how the Mail-Star handles the same consideration.

  8. Looking forward to reading it. I thought personally Graham was a huge loss to the NDP and a simple statement that he disagreed with the Premier’s decision would have better explained his departure. There was a lot of talk about potential reasons and some were pretty colorful.

  9. A very interesting review, but your analysis of our Nova Scotia dilemma was much better. Frankly, neither Graham Steel nor Howard Epstein were of any consequence during the Dexter years because they were both silent as it quickly became apparent that Dexter was focused from day one on only one thing; getting re-elected. That’s not human frailty. That’s craven, self serving and cynical. Darrell Dexter, with the implied consent of Epstein, Steele and the other party movers and shakers turned his back on pretty much everything the NDP stood for as he threw our tax money at both local hustlers and out of province carpetbaggers. The sad thing is that the NDP under the leadership of the NDP careerists are totally unwilling to acknowledge any of this in the vain hope that they might actually win another election some time soon. As the old saying goes, “if you don’t admit there is a problem, you can’t come up with a solution”.

    1. Hear! Hear! As a lifelong socialist, I supported the NDP in many an argument and many an election. NO MORE!
      The reckless and obviously self-serving actions of Dexter and his Closet Tory groupies and the spectre of more of the same drives me to vote for the Greens. At least they have a reasonable take on the looming disaster the other parties vehemently deny as they speed, lemming-like to oblivion.

  10. Leaving aside for a moment the fact that we Nova Scotians are poor (and apparently, a little stupid), I’d like to ask the question I’ve been asking other people over the last couple of weeks:

    If this were another place – not Nova Scotia – would there be reporters reading Graham’s book and saying, “How do I know if this is true? This is one person’s recollection. There were other people — not just Howard — who were there, who were named (or unnamed) in Graham’s tale. Do they remember these years the same way Graham does?”

    I have a disclosure too: my husband worked in Premier Dexter’s office but I’m asking my question as a long-time independent journalist.

    And also: “Measured by the good it did for people, the NDP was better in opposition than it was in power.”

    Have you ever looked at this?

    http://nsndp.ca/accomplishments

  11. I was gobsmacked when Epstein was left out of Cabinet. He should have been Minister of the Environment. That omission turned out to be a signal of what was to come. 🙁