Graham Steele: Mr. McNeil, tear down this wall

This week’s naming of a 15-member committee to “move forward the work” of the Ivany Commission is as little as the McNeil government could possibly do, without doing nothing.
Ray Ivany, chair of commission on building Nova Scotia's new economy delivered his report earlier this year. (CBC)

The cover of the Ivany Commission report is bright yellow and black, evoking a crime scene, or maybe a construction site.

The very title­ — "Now or Never: An Urgent Call to Action for Nova Scotians" — is meant to deliver a baseball-through-the-window sense of urgency.

But that was back on Feb. 12, and since then, it’s been hard to detect any sense of urgency from the McNeil government. 

This week’s naming of a 15-member committee to “move forward the work” of the Ivany Commission is as little as the McNeil government could possibly do, without doing nothing.

In the bowels of government, it’s been business as usual.

Let’s be clear: The 15 committee members are eminent, worthy people.

But so were the twenty-one members of Darrell Dexter’s 2010 Premier’s Council on the Economy.

And so were the fourteen members of Rodney MacDonald’s 2008 Premier’s Economic Advisory Panel.

All three committees were assembled as painstakingly as a provincial cabinet, with careful attention to region, gender, sector, and ethnicity.

There’s even one person, J.P. Deveau of Acadian Seaplants — a lovely and highly capable guy — on all three.

John Bragg was a member of the Ivany Commission, and he sat on the MacDonald committee. Dan Christmas, another Ivany Commission member, sat on the Dexter committee. Rick Clarke was on the Dexter committee and is back on the McNeil committee. Joe Shannon was on the MacDonald and Dexter committees. 

There’s the obligatory spot for the universities (first Colin Dodds of SMU, then Sean Riley of St. FX, now Martha Crago of Dalhousie). There were prominent business people aplenty: Paul Sobey and David Hennigar, Michael Donovan and Jim Spatz, and Henry Demone and Jevon MacDonald.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

When it comes to economic advisory committees, we’ve got the T-shirt.

I’ve been watching Nova Scotia politics closely for only 20 years, and the “rinse and repeat” cycle seems to be getting shorter. In the past 10 years we’ve had four premiers and a turnover of about 80 per cent of the MLAs, so maybe it’s getting easier for our politicians to forget that we’ve seen this movie before, and recently too.

But does anybody remember what the MacDonald committee said or did?  What about the Dexter committee?  No, me neither — and I was closer to the political scene than most. 

So why is this one going to turn out differently?

However worthy the members, the fact is that this new committee falls woefully short of what the Ivany report actually calls for.

What the Ivany report actually says is that we need a “new politics.” It says we need something akin to a wartime coalition government to focus all available energies and resources to overcome the crisis confronting us. No more “conventional measures,” no more “muddling through.”

Appointing another 15-member committee is a very conventional measure.

Naming the two opposition leaders as vice-chairs of a 15-member committee is not remotely akin to a wartime coalition government — and the opposition leaders have said yes only because it would look bad if they said no.

The Ivany Report is a direct challenge to our political culture. I think Ivany underestimates just how strong, and how utterly resistant to change, that political culture is. A scolding, and an exhortation to do better, won’t even make a dent.

The Liberals spent 14 years trying to regain power, and now that they have it, they’re not interested in sharing. Of course it’s not just Stephen McNeil and the Liberals that can’t imagine a different kind of politics. Jamie Baillie, Maureen MacDonald, and their parties, are immersed in the same culture, which tells them their principal job is to tear down the government. They can’t imagine anything different, either.

Appointing Conservatives and New Democrats to a unity Cabinet — that would be a new politics. 

Ending the marginalization of our MLAs, and yanking them off the summer barbecue circuit and putting them to work full-time on the Ivany recommendations — that would be a new politics.

Maybe Ray Ivany needs to create a Reaganesque moment, and stand outside One Government Place and say “Mr. McNeil, tear down this wall.”


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.