Nova Scotia·Opinion

Graham Steele: Ivany report means whatever you want it to mean

CBC political analyst Graham Steele reflects on an economic development report written by a five-member panel led by Acadia University president Ray Ivany.
Ray Ivany, chair of the commission on building Nova Scotia's new economy, delivered his report on Wednesday. (CBC)

The report of the Ivany Commission, released on Wednesday, will be a Rorschach test for Nova Scotians. Because it is so broad — and so vague — you will be able to see in it whatever you choose.

Let me start by saying I'm a big fan of Ray Ivany and have been ever since he led the team that transformed the Nova Scotia Community College into a top-tier, can-do winner. If Ray's leading a parade, I want to be in it.

I know all of the other commissioners too — Irene d’Entremont, Dan Christmas, Susanna Fuller and John Bragg — and each is a person of ability and accomplishment. But Ray's the leader, so I hope they'll forgive me if I call it the Ivany Commission and the Ivany report.

The Ivany Report, entitled "Now or Never: An Urgent Call to Action," is a call for big, big changes. This is heady stuff.

There are 19 goals — grouped in the areas of population, economic development and governance — and 12 strategic directions or "game changers."

The whole report is magnificent, really, which is why it's destined to go nowhere. There'll be lots of chatter, at least for a while, and the leadership class will appropriate some of the language and concepts.

But this report is going nowhere because the thoughts are too big and the solutions stop at the point where the questions get difficult.

It's impossible to give a brief comment on the full swath of such a big-thinking report, so I'll focus on the section on politics and let it stand for the rest.

The report calls for "A New Politics," analogous to the coalition governments formed in wartime or national emergency, in which "the normal processes of partisan politics" are suspended and everyone works together towards a common goal. The report says an all-party committee should agree on an economic development plan, hopefully unanimously, then politics over the next 10 years will take place within the plan.

Game changers

My goodness. Is that all it would take? Just a complete change in the way we do politics, akin to a war or national emergency?

Remember: this is only the first of 12 "game changers." There's plenty more where that came from.

I don't think the Ivany Commission takes seriously enough the hard questions about why politics is the way it is. It's not just a matter of snapping our fingers in front of our politicians and saying "Wake up!"

There are powerful forces — social, psychological, historical, cultural, legal, economic — that have constructed our politics and that favour things continuing more or less as they are.

Our politicians are us, after all, and change isn't our favourite thing. Even if we can live with change, there is absolutely no consensus within the province about what those changes should be.

I can illustrate the point with a more mundane issue like municipal governance. Although the Ivany report doesn't say so, it's nuts that a province of under a million people has 54 municipalities. But there's history here, and identity, and the naggingly prosaic question of who pays how much property tax.

Vague on answers

The Ivany report vaguely calls for "a comprehensive review of current municipal government structures." What changes to municipal governance does the Ivany Commission recommend? Silence.

Why are things frozen in an unsatisfactory status quo? Silence.

The Ivany Commission walks up to the hard questions — and stops.

The last time a provincial government tried to push real change in municipal governance, it was Liberal, and it was soundly thrashed in the next election. There has been much talk but little concrete action since.

The Dexter government said we'd enact any governance reform on which there was consensus. Nobody stepped forward because there was no consensus.

What are the chances that our new Liberal government, who have finally made it back to office after 14 years in the wilderness, are going to head straight back into the swamps of non-consensual municipal governance reform? Pretty close to zero, I'd say.

Municipal governance is only one issue of dozens touched upon in the Ivany report. It has baffled governments of all parties for at least 20 years, if not longer. Consensus is elusive.

The Ivany report calls for a review. Like a Rorschach test, that can mean whatever you want it to mean.


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.