Graham Steele: Andrew Younger situation is a mess
Premier Stephen McNeil should have asked for — and gotten — Younger's resignation, says Steele
Being a cabinet minister is like no other job — in fact it's not a 'job' at all and our political culture has placed a mystical aura around it.
That's why Stephen McNeil is floundering as he tries to figure out what to do with his energy minister, Andrew Younger.
The vast majority of us fit into one of three categories: employed, self-employed or not employed. There's a fourth category so small that we usually forget about it: office holders.
Members of the legislature and cabinet ministers are office holders.
If that sounds weird, it is.
For MLAs and cabinet ministers, there are almost no rules about vacation days, sick days, long-term disability or leaves of absence. There are a few rules about attendance in the House of Assembly, but they're weak and not usually enforced.
So an MLA could vacation in Florida while the House is sitting, or take a months-long holiday, or even move away from Nova Scotia — and continue to draw full pay.
For a political office holder, the only constraints are personal ethics, maybe the party leader and eventually the voters. In the virtual absence of rules, it shouldn't surprise us that our leaders are unsure how to handle unusual situations.
The question that matters
Whatever's going on with Andrew Younger, it's unusual. We don't know much. The vise of political secrecy has clamped down tight.
Neither the premier nor Younger will say why, exactly, they believe that Younger isn't able to carry out his duties. We don't need to know all the gossipy details, but Younger holds a public office, performs public duties and draws a public salary.
Citizens have a right to enough information to answer the only question that matters: "Is the people's business being properly looked after?"
The answer, unfortunately, is that we don't know.
Searching for the right answer
McNeil's first response was to keep Younger in cabinet, while assigning Younger's duties to economic development minister Michel Samson. That's the normal way to handle an extended ministerial illness, as with the late Michael Baker.
In this case, however, neither Younger nor the premier is claiming that Younger is ill. And except for a medical leave, it doesn't seem right for a minister to collect a salary for a job he or she is not doing.
So the premier's next move, two weeks later, was to take away Younger's ministerial pay.
All of this leaves Younger in an unprecedented limbo: still technically a minister, but without duties or pay.
Michel Samson is a capable fellow. If anyone in the McNeil cabinet can carry a double load, it's him. Even so, the current situation is untenable.
If Samson can adequately discharge double duty without harm to the people's business, maybe we never needed a separate minister. And if he can’t, Younger's limbo has to end now.
The root of the problem, I suspect, is the mystical aura that has developed around being in cabinet. It has become the Holy Grail of a political career.
More than anything else, the hope of one day being in cabinet is what keeps government backbenchers in line. And once someone's in, they almost never leave, lest it harm their re-election prospects.
We saw a perfect example this week in federal politics. Julian Fantino could have been turfed from the federal cabinet. Instead, he was shuffled to a minor portfolio and the federal cabinet grew to record size.
The best response
McNeil is making similarly awkward choices about Younger.
The best response is obvious: The premier should have asked for — and gotten — Younger's resignation, and appointed someone else to take his place.
If he had done so, all this mess about an indefinite leave and ministerial pay and double loads would have been avoided.
If and when the whole thing blows over, Younger can be re-appointed. That response would have been clean and simple. But it runs against the political culture. And so far, political culture is winning.