Nova Scotia·Opinion

Politicians should own their decision on a new Eastern Passage high school: Graham Steele

If they're going to bump something up a priority list, or add something that wasn't there, politicians have to be prepared to explain it and defend it, writes Graham Steele.

They should be prepared to explain and defend their decisions, says Steele

Premier Stephen McNeil's Liberals green-lighted plans for a new Eastern Passage High School, a project first promised by the previous NDP government. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

I voted to build a new high school in Eastern Passage.

So slap on the handcuffs and throw away the key.

I was a politician, and I exercised political judgment. I'm not sorry.

This all comes up because Nova Scotia Auditor General Michael Pickup is puzzled, and a puzzled auditor general is a dangerous thing.

Auditing decision-making

On Wednesday, Pickup released an audit of decision-making on school construction.

He's puzzled because he can't find a justification for the Eastern Passage school, nor can he find a justification for the priority given to new schools in Bridgetown and Tatamagouche.

Bridgetown happens to be in the premier's constituency. Tatamagouche happens to be in the education minister's constituency.

Pickup isn't saying there's no justification. He's saying that if there is one, it's not apparent from the files.

Let me unpuzzle him.

High school always on agenda 

There has been a demand for an Eastern Passage high school for as long as I've been in politics.

My former colleague Kevin Deveaux was first elected as MLA for Cole Harbour–Eastern Passage in 1998. That's when I started working for the NDP caucus. A new high school was always on his agenda.

When Deveaux left politics in 2007, he was replaced by Becky Kent — another New Democrat with an avowed commitment to building a high school in Eastern Passage.

When the NDP formed the government in 2009 — and with Kent being re-elected by a huge margin — it was time to put that commitment to the test.

Tears streaming

In April 2012, the announcement was made by then-premier Darrell Dexter.

And in the front row, tears streaming down her cheeks, was Joyce Treen. She was an Eastern Passage parent and long-time advocate for a new high school.   

Eighteen months later, Treen defeated Kent to become the MLA for Cole Harbour–Eastern Passage.

Department list

As finance minister from 2009 to 2012, I was a member of the Treasury Board. That's the five-member cabinet committee that makes all the important spending decisions.

Every year we'd spend long meetings on the capital budget. Roads. Hospitals. Schools.

The Education Department's list was always very long. For each proposed project, we could make three decisions:

  1. Build a new school.
  2. Fix up or add to an existing school.
  3. Or say, "Sorry, not this year."

The department's list started the Treasury Board's discussion. The list didn't end it, because we were not ruled by spreadsheets or bureaucrats. And that's a very good thing.

Political judgment

At their best, politicians are deeply connected to their communities. They understand the histories, fears, hopes, grievances, and opportunities of the people they serve.

They use this understanding to exercise political judgment. You can't put that in a spreadsheet. It's not in any file an auditor can read.

Of course political judgment has a bad side, too. The bad stuff — the wheedling, tantrums and partisanship — is never in the file either.

For better or worse, we exercised our political judgment on the Eastern Passage high school. We knew the costs and consequences of our decision. Everything in Wednesday's report was discussed at length around the Treasury Board, cabinet and caucus tables.

Presumably that's what the McNeil government did on the Bridgetown and Tatamagouche schools too.

Own the decision

If politicians are going to exercise political judgment, they need to own it.

If they're going to bump something up a priority list, or add something that wasn't there, they have to be prepared to explain it and defend it.

Instead, politicians' first instinct is to bury the decision-making process in secrecy.

If exposed — and it shouldn't take an auditor general report to expose the decision-making process around schools — their second instinct is to deny there was any political judgment involved. That's what Karen Casey did yesterday, and it did her credibility no good.

No pause button

So will the McNeil government now hit the pause button on that high school in Eastern Passage? Not a chance.

Joyce Treen is a low-profile MLA in a marginal seat. In the 2013 election, when everything was running the Liberals' way, she squeaked into office. It won't take much for her to lose next time.

If Treen stands for anything, it is the building of that high school.

It will be built, and it should be, and Joyce Treen should not be the least bit embarrassed to own that decision.