Nova Scotia·Opinion

Stephen McNeil to feel wrath of protestors unlike ever before, says Graham Steele

The sea of protesters expected to descend Friday on Province House will be unlike anything Premier Stephen McNeil has seen before, says CBC political analyst Graham Steele.

Teachers staging a 1-day walkout on Friday will gather at Province House to protest contract legislation

While Bill 75 was going to be a bitter pill for teachers to swallow, Premier Stephen McNeil could have made it easier by incorporating gains from the third round of contract bargaining, writes CBC political analyst Graham Steele. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Premier Stephen McNeil, the lion in winter, looks down on a snow-covered Province House from his corner office high atop One Government Place.

OGP, as it's known to insiders, is an unattractive office building on the Granville Street side of Province House.

It's also the centre of political power in Nova Scotia.

From there, the premier can look over the flags waving on the roof of Province House and, at the right angle, out to Halifax harbour and beyond to the horizon. He has the long view.

If he looks straight down this week, though, he will see protestors.

Protesters gathered outside Province House in Halifax on Wednesday evening. (Robert Short/CBC)

On Friday, when 9,300 teachers stage a provincewide walkout — the first time in their history that Nova Scotia teachers have walked off the job — the premier is likely to see a sea of protestors the likes of which Province House has never experienced.

It's in his voice. It's in his eyes.The lion is bewildered it has come to this.

Teachers' love

McNeil thought he had the teachers on his side.

He brushed aside the Dexter government, which was not beloved by teachers.

Then, since taking office, the premier has more or less done what he said he would on P-12 education.

He put tens of millions of dollars into the education budget. He appointed a committee on education reform that duly reported on "disrupting the status quo" in education. He appointed his most trusted lieutenant as education minister.

None of this bought him the teachers' love.

So how did it come to this?

Partisan jabs

McNeil has been an MLA since 2003. He knows how the legislature works. He has mastered the mysteries of the province's most dysfunctional workplace.

You can see it this week in question period. After months of uncertainty with teachers, the premier is back in his element down at Province House.

He's good at the partisan jabs, at sticking to the message track, at turning every question back on the opposition's own record when they were in government.

He knows how to keep his own members in line, and he knows how to keep the opposition off balance.

In that environment, the lion still roars.

Hubris peeks out

Outside though, it's different.

The partisanship in the legislative chamber means nothing on the street. To the contrary, it can come across as mean-spirited, even bullying.

As I've written before, the Achilles heel of the McNeil government is its hubris.

The McNeil government is composed of good people doing their level best with tough issues, but the hubris peeks out at the most inopportune moments.

Hubris peeks out from behind the legal language of Bill 75.

Bitter pill

Bill 75 was always going to be a bitter pill for teachers to swallow, but the government could have helped it go down more easily.

All it had to do was incorporate the gains negotiated in the third round of bargaining.

Instead, Bill 75 rolls back those gains, most notably on the relatively meagre wage increases.

The premier's explanation — that Bill 75 reflects the tentative agreement that got the most support from teachers — is utterly disingenuous.

There were plenty of reasons why the rate of rejection went from 61 to 70 to almost 80 per cent, and they had nothing to do with teachers liking the first deal better.

House majority

Bill 75 will pass. There's not the slightest question of that. McNeil commands a majority in the House.

As leader of the Liberal party, he also gets to decide who will run under the Liberal banner in the next election.

As premier, he controls everything that matters to his MLAs.

To defeat Bill 75 would require nine Liberal MLAs to defy him.

One? Unlikely, but possible. Two? Almost unprecedented. Nine? Inconceivable.

Taking the long view

McNeil has led a government that is still — if you believe the polls, and I do — remarkably popular in its fourth year.

His opposition is weak. If the latent anger came together around one of the opposition leaders — the same way that anger at the Dexter government gathered around McNeil himself in 2013 — then his future would be dim. That's not happening.

McNeil should be coasting to victory in a 2017 election, but is he really? Behind the teachers, health-care workers and civil servants are watching and waiting. They don't have a contract either.

McNeil believes he is doing the right thing. He believes the people of Nova Scotia will recognize it.

He cannot be sure.

The lion in winter paces his office, taking the long view, wondering why he is not more loved.


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.