Nova Scotia·Opinion

Only path forward in dispute with teachers is for Karen Casey to resign: Graham Steele

It is possible to resign with honour, writes Graham Steele. Unfortunately, ministerial resignation has become associated with blame.

All I know is this: Politics as usual won't take us where we need to go, says Graham Steele

Education Minister Karen Casey attends a news conference in Halifax on Monday. All Nova Scotia public schools reopened on Tuesday. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

What now?

Students are back in class, after the government's extraordinary decision last Saturday to close all public schools, and their disorderly retreat from an emergency session of the legislature on Monday.

But that only throws us back into a deeply unsatisfactory status quo.

Work-to-rule by teachers is on.

There are no talks scheduled or likely.

The government has no plan — not after Monday's fiasco.

The Nova Scotia Teachers Union has no plan — not after members twice voted down recommended deals.

The gulf between the McNeil government and the NSTU is wider than ever, and now emotions are raw on both sides.

So what now?

I do not see any path forward without the resignation of Education Minister Karen Casey.

I do not say that lightly. Nobody knows better than me the weight of a ministerial resignation.

The key is that a ministerial resignation can be a public symbol. It is possible to resign with honour. That is a notion fading from our democratic memory, and which we need to revive.

Getting into cabinet has attained an almost mythical status among politicians, and nobody gives it up easily.

But why Karen Casey? Why not the premier, who has been personally leading the file? Why not the premier's staff, who would have been deeply involved in all the decision-making?

It is neither realistic nor desirable for the premier to resign, and there is no symbolic value in having staff resign. Besides, it gets us nowhere to start pointing fingers.

I don't want to get too theological, but the underlying concept is one of atonement.

The dispute with teachers, and especially the events of Dec. 3 to Dec. 5, has created a widening rift between the government and the public it serves.

Atonement requires symbolic sacrifice

To atone — to become "at-one" again — requires a symbolic sacrifice. That is what a honourable ministerial resignation would do.

Unfortunately, ministerial resignation has become associated with blame. In today's politics, a minister resigns only if they were directly at fault, and only if no scapegoat can be found.

That is the psychology that is driving Stephen McNeil and Casey to laugh off any suggestion of resignation. It would be an admission of error, and politicians do not lightly admit error.

It is also the psychology that causes opponents to ramp up the rhetoric. Some online diatribes have been hateful.

Resignation as blame not the way

On Tuesday Opposition Leader Jamie Baillie renewed his call for McNeil to "fire" Casey for her "incompetent and unethical handling" of the dispute with teachers.

That is classic resignation-as-blame. That is exactly the wrong thing to do. Ironically, a call phrased in those terms practically guarantees it will not happen.

I am not talking about resignation-as-blame at all.

I am talking about resignation-as-atonement. It is possible for a minister to be good, indeed to be blameless, and still resign in order to heal a rift.

If Casey were to say, "I acknowledge that negotiations are not going well, and I recognize I am not the person to lead us to the next step," that would be simply stating a fact. It is not about blame. It is about a fresh start.

This dispute is at an impasse, and threatens to devolve into a drawn-out siege. Only an extraordinary step like the minister's resignation will move us forward.

I am not counselling the government to cave in. McNeil believes former premier Darrell Dexter caved in to public sector unions in 2012, and is determined to prove himself tougher. I am counselling the government to hit the reset button on talks with the teachers.

New kind of politics needed

The cracks in the P-12 education system revealed by this dispute have been widening for a long time. I am as responsible as anyone, because I was part of a government that did not identify or fix the problems.

All I know is this: Politics as usual won't take us where we need to go.

Saturday, Monday and Tuesday: that was all politics as usual.

The Ivany Commission's first recommendation was for a new kind of politics, and they were right.

The minister's resignation is the electric shock needed to jolt both sides out of their entrenched positions.

Atonement. To be at-one again.

That could be the ultimate legacy of Casey's time in politics.

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