Graham Steele: For a politician, everything is public

Political analyst Graham Steele says the hardest thing to learn for a politician is that the spotlight is always on and you're being watched more closely than you've ever been before.

Graham Steele reflects on the public and private lives of Nova Scotia's MLAs

Nova Scotia Liberal MLA Joachim Stroink makes an emotional statement as he addresses a news conference in Halifax about tweeting a photo of himself sitting on the lap of a blackface Christmas character at a Dutch holiday event. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

The hardest thing to learn for a politician — especially a rookie politician — is that the spotlight is always on. You're being watched more closely than you've ever been before.

Joachim Stroink, the MLA for Halifax Chebucto, learned this lesson the hard way when he tweeted a photo of himself sitting on the knee of Zwarte Piet, a traditional character in Christmas celebrations in the Netherlands. Zwarte Piet, or Black Peter, is Santa Claus's helper and is typically portrayed by a white person in blackface makeup.

Stroink has probably attended this community celebration many times before. The difference now is that for the first time in his life, he did it as an elected representative.

Rightly or wrongly, fairly or unfairly, the standards are different.

The standards are different because an MLA in Nova Scotia represents about 20,000 people. His or her words and actions are now being judged as a representative of all those people.

Many of their constituents have different backgrounds, experiences and outlooks and they won't always take kindly to the way the MLA is representing them. Since provincial politics is a team sport, the MLA is also being judged as a representative of the party, the leader and the legislature.

There are political opponents who will seek to take advantage of every slip. If they can't find a slip, they'll invent one or exaggerate one. Yes, that's an ugly part of the political landscape too. But not every negative reaction can be put down to partisan malice.

Stroink is not the first MLA to touch off controversy with an innocent gesture — and surely he will not be the last.

Sticking to the script

In 2005, Gary Hines told an off-colour joke while representing the province at a public event. Although it took him a few days, he did apologize — sort of — saying he thought it was OK because he'd heard his mother tell the joke.

What's funny at home or at the bar may be distinctly unfunny in a public setting. That's why most politicians tell only self-deprecating jokes, if they tell jokes at all. Anything else is dangerous.

In 1998, Premier Russell MacLellan repeated a misconception that the Indigenous Blacks and Mi'kmaq Initiative at Dalhousie University's Schulich School of Law led to a degree with lower standards, when in fact the students graduated with the same degree as everyone else. The comment created a backlash and he later apologized.

That's why most politicians tend to read from texts prepared by civil servants. They're boring but they're factually accurate and therefore safe.

Nowhere is off limits

When I was first elected in 2001, there was no Twitter, no Facebook, no smartphones. Now everybody is carrying an all-in-one video recorder, voice recorder and camera. Nowhere is off limits: no pub, no restaurant, no street, no grocery store, nowhere.

Ask Ernie Fage, who had someone follow him home with a video camera after a motor vehicle collision.

Ask Rob Ford, who denied everything until the police obtained the famous video from a deleted hard drive.

For a politician, there is no distinction between public and private. You cannot change hats and expect other people to keep track of which hat you're wearing. Everywhere you go, everything you do, you are the MLA. Your sphere of privacy is shrunken almost to nothing.

It's a fine line between giving politicians a break and not being too forgiving.

Politicians, like the rest of us, have habits and biases and prejudices and preconceived ideas. Some of what they believe is wrong and not everything they believe is noble. But as long as they listen, learn and change when appropriate, we need to forgive and move on with the business of governing.

When you hold elected office, the light shines on you for a reason and it's not because you're awesome. As the saying goes, "Sunlight is the best disinfectant." When you step outside the light is ready to shine and not everything looks good in the light.

About the Author

Graham Steele

Political analyst

Graham Steele is a former MLA who was elected four times as a New Democrat for the constituency of Halifax Fairview. He also served as finance minister. Steele is now a political analyst for CBC News.


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