Nova Scotia·Opinion

Citizens are the only force able to end partisan politics, says Graham Steele

In his farewell column, Graham Steele says he hasn't seen meaningful change since the Ivany report called for "a new politics."

In his farewell column, former politician says 'a new politics' won't come from elected officials

Citizens call for Nova Scotia Power to become a provincially owned utility in this file photo from 2012. Graham Steele says citizens are the only force capable of changing politics. (CBC)

When the Ivany report came out in February 2014, the very first recommendation was for "a new politics."

That's because the report laid out ambitious goals and targets for Nova Scotia's economic development.

Unsurprisingly, the commissioners concluded that politics-as-usual — divided leadership, conventional measures and "continued muddling through" — was not up to the task of taking us where we needed to go.

The Ivany report has its critics, but it's still the clearest view of our challenges and opportunities as a province.

And I think the Ivany commissioners were bang-on to put "a new politics" first. Without it, we turn in circles.

Political culture

I was in politics for 15 years, and now I've been out for almost four. In that span, I haven't seen meaningful change in the way politics is practised.

Political culture runs deep. It's not something you can change by snapping your fingers.

Maybe the Ivany commission was unrealistic about just exactly how hard it would be to move towards a new politics.

In fact my CBC commentary has depended on politics continuing more or less unchanged. I take my past experience, apply it to the present, and end up with a fairly accurate picture of what's going on behind the closed doors of government.

If we were truly seeing a new politics, I wouldn't be able to do that.

The names and faces change, but politicians' thought processes remain the same. Each new crop of MLAs thinks they're different, and they're not.

Three-step plan

When I say that Nova Scotia's politics hasn't changed, that doesn't mean there is literally nothing new.

Every government does good things. In fact every government does a lot of good things. So would you if you had $10 billion at your disposal every year.

The McNeil government has particularly stood out for its three-step plan to reform public-sector labour relations.

Step 1: Enact essential-services legislation for health care.

Step 2: Merge dozens of health-care bargaining units into four (or eight, counting the IWK).

Done and done. No future government will reverse these accomplishments. That's the McNeil government's legacy.

It's at Step 3 — setting a new course on collective bargaining throughout the public sector — that the McNeil government got bogged down.

Then positions become entrenched. Division grows. Partisanship takes hold, because the real issues are hard. It's the opposite of what the Ivany commission called for. It's the old politics.

Partisan reflex

The old politics is killing us, and partisanship is at the heart of the old politics.

Political parties have their uses, but the party mindset is destructive. Partisans don't think. The shame-and-blame game is a reflex that each new group of politicians quickly develops.

And despite the protestations and promises of the opposition parties, there is no prospect that a change of government will bring us any closer to a new politics.

Besides, a new politics is not the same as a new government. How many times do we change governments before we realize that changing governments isn't the answer?

That's the truth the Ivany Commission grasped in 2014.

There are glimmers, but they're few. The way that Bill 59 (Accessibility Act) was recently handled by the legislature's law amendments committee was a revelation. For once we saw a law-making process that was calm, inclusive and thoughtful.

There is no such thing as a non-partisan process, but partisanship can be controlled and channelled, and in this case it was.

The most powerful political force that ever was

We have to ask ourselves: Why can't it be like that all the time? What are our politicians afraid of?

They're afraid of admitting their vulnerability. They are searching for the answers, but new ways are risky and hard. The old ways are safe and easy.

If there is going to be "a new politics," the change will come from citizens, not from already-elected politicians.

Effective citizens — engaged, knowledgeable and persistent — are, when united in common cause, the most powerful political force that ever was.

If they lead the way to a new politics, the politicians will follow.

This is my last web column for the CBC. My goal each week over the past three-plus years has been to lift the curtain, just a little, on how Nova Scotia politics really works. Thanks for reading.


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.