Editor’s note: Former MLA Howard Epstein has written the following review of his former colleague Graham Steele’s book, What I Learned About Politics. The Examiner will discuss both Steele’s book and Epstein’s review in a post to be published soon.
What I Learned About Graham Steele
by Howard Epstein
“I have nothing to say, and I am saying it.” – John Cage
If you share Graham Steele’s concern over unconstrained expenditures, you might save yourself $21.95 by waiting until the new Halifax Central Library opens in the late Fall and borrow his book What I Learned About Politics. In the meantime, you can read this review.
Graham is an engaging writer. The essence of his book is to be accessible for the general reader. It is a quick read. But it is glib. There is very little that is a serious pointing to a way forward. No useful way forward for the NDP. None for Nova Scotia. Not for Canada. And, interestingly, not much of a way forward for Graham himself. (As he points out, politics can be something of a dead-end career choice. What can we imagine Graham doing next? It is far from obvious.)
The main story told is of his decision to resign from Cabinet. This is set against a picture of highly centralized control of decision-making by the Premier’s office. On the one hand, Graham offers himself as independent-minded, but as he says about Darrell “he was my kind of New Democrat”. Graham puts himself on the part of the NDP spectrum that is “moderate, pragmatic, centrist” which he contrasts with those who are “more contrarian, more ideological, less accommodating.”
To the extent that this portrait is meant to raise thoughts that the main differences inside the NDP are between those who are “ideological” and Graham as a better version of Darrell, it is grossly misleading. The differences are between those who are traditional New Democrats and those who forgot what being a New Democrat is all about. The big electoral failures of the “pragmatic” Dippers in Ontario, and B.C., following haplessly along the disastrous Dexter path, are not noted by Graham. Mr. Mulcair, pay attention.
The two points on which Graham offers himself as independent-minded are on MLA expenses, and on not offering too much in wages to nurses. Nothing much else about the policy choices of the NDP seems to have been problematic for him. Though at the same time, he claims that his core issues, the objectives for which he entered politics, are “poverty, housing, a clean government”.
All of these have a story associated with them, but you will not really find the story in Graham’s book. Housing disappeared from the NDP agenda, and there was never any sign of Graham trying to do anything about it. Poverty is also something we did little about. Graham does say this about the rise in the HST: that the offsets, through the ‘affordable living tax credit’ and the ‘poverty reduction credit’, put more money into the hands of low-income Nova Scotians than the HST increase took out; “But we didn’t make a big splash out of it.” In fact what Graham told caucus at the time was that nothing would be said about it ‘because the middle class did not like governments doing things for the poor.’
On his resignation, the tipping point was the Premier’s highhanded decision in 2012 to send the public-sector wage issue to binding arbitration, with an already-generous Government offer on the table, and to do so after caucus had already agreed on a different course (legislation) and after Treasury Board had already said it would be unaffordable. This is all interesting, but there was another big money issue up for debate at the same time, namely whether to maintain the HST at 15% or to reduce it. That, too, was being debated at caucus, and Darrell also preempted discussion by announcing a decision—cut the HST. But that was a decision Graham agreed with. What you have to take from this is that Graham favours reducing government revenues (lowering taxes) over increasing expenditures even when those increases mean better wages for nurses and others in the public sector. Those are his priorities. And they are the wrong ones.
His stated reasons for resigning are also pretty much of a belly laugh. What he says is he “no longer believed in the government’s fiscal plan” and indeed he “slashed” portions of a “prepared text dealing with my confidence in the province’s finances. I no longer believed it, so I couldn’t say it.” One year later, it was Graham as acting Finance Minister in 2013 (while Maureen MacDonald was off ill)–a full year after he resigned–who said to the public “The province’s finances are in good hands and they are in good shape.”
It would have been helpful if Graham had explained his reasons for resigning to his caucus colleagues, but he never did.
Make no mistake, there is a lot of amusing and useful material in this book. His lists of ‘the rules of the game’, ‘the laws of finance’, and ‘escape hatches’ all resonate as true, sadly. And his portraits of the players are vivid. For example this one of Darrell’s Chief of Staff Dan O’Connor: a “lovely, decent, eccentric man” who “should have been locked in a room and tasked solely with strategizing”.
What in the end is this book about? It is not about policy, except by omission and implication. Nothing much about our legislative agenda. Nothing about tax policy except as it relates to the HST. Very little about energy policy. Not much about public auto insurance. Nothing about electoral boundaries. Not much about the economy generally. Virtually nothing about schools or post-secondary education. Health policy is incidental. Zip about environmental sustainability.
It does seem to be about three things: an attack on Darrell; a piece of self-promotion; and a critique of a lot of the nitty-gritty of politics as practiced now.
If Graham is ‘Darrell’s kind of New Democrat’ why the attack? It is very puzzling, and can only be a matter for speculation. Now that Darrell is gone, it is safe to poke him. Graham was a Darrell loyalist. But initially, he probably held leadership thoughts of his own, when there was a vacancy in 2001/2002, post-Helen MacDonald. Darrell out-maneuvered him by becoming interim leader after a promise not to seek the permanent leadership, and then going for it. After the leadership selection, though, he was mostly of one mind with Darrell. Graham fell into line, but may well carry resentment.
Where he does draw the line is over MLA expenses, exactly the point on which Darrell lost personal credibility. On this, Graham says he “had enough of the hypocrisy and the peer pressure,” a grand-sounding self-appraisal. Graham is a strong personality; he hates to be wrong, or to have his colleagues disagree with him; thus there were small instances of him staking out his own position. He must see himself as a lone-player, however much he usually offers a defence of the need for party politics and its group approaches. His book is a personal memoir – “What I Learned About Politics” is entirely too personal.
What I do speculate, is that Graham is not out of politics permanently, or at least wants to leave his options open. These years immediately in the future are not likely ones for an NDP comeback in Nova Scotia. The job now is rebuilding. It will be a tough slog. This task is probably not something of interest to Graham; his moment may be in six years to ten years.
The Nova Scotia NDP in and out of power deserves quite a different book. I may write one myself.
– Howard Epstein
Howard Epstein was NDP MLA for Halifax Chebucto from 1998 to 2013 when he retired.