Marilla Stephenson hire was over the line: Graham Steele

There is a sharp line to be drawn between hiring political staff — who come and go with the premier — and hiring permanent, arm's-length civil service, columnist Graham Steele writes.

There's a sharp line to be drawn between hiring political staff and hiring civil servants

When the job competition closed on May 16, Marilla Stephenson was the only applicant. (www2.acadiau.ca)

There are so many angles to this Marilla Stephenson story that I don't know where to begin.

Here are four angles; there are many more.

Sharp line

If the premier wants to hire Stephenson, or a Pokemon Pidgey, then let him. Like all modern premiers, he's running the province out of his office. We, his loyal subjects, need him to be surrounded by the right people.

But there is a sharp line to be drawn between political staff — who come and go with the premier — and the permanent, arm's-length civil service, who stay after a government is voted out.

Stephenson was originally hired politically. No problem there. The premier had a job to be done. He found the person he wanted to do it.

But moving her into the civil service in a stitched-up competition dances straight over a line that needs to be carefully guarded.

A stitch-up

Yes, it was a stitch-up all right.

The only semi-hero in this story is Cheryl Tucker, a civil servant in the executive council office who told her superiors that Stephenson could not just be placed into an existing civil service job. It was, she pointed out, somebody else's job.

So they created a new job.

But who knows what the new job is? The job description is the worst kind of post-Ivany bafflegab.

Laura Lee Langley, now Nova Scotia's top civil servant, admitted she was "running on fumes" when writing it. I interpret that to mean that she didn't really know what the job was either.

Moreover, Stephenson was consulted about the job description before she applied for it. Despite what the premier said this week, there is nothing the least bit normal about that.

The competition was limited to a handful of people who presumably knew whose nameplate was supposed to go on the door. It would have been a seriously career-limiting move for anyone else in that small group to apply.

The competition was open for a very short period. There was only one applicant.

The public service commission should have known that something was amiss. There were more red flags than an old-time communist convention.

The rules were being followed, but only technically. The spirit of the rules was AWOL.

Instead, the commission played along.

Pure motivations

On Monday, CBC Information Morning host Don Connolly interviewed the premier about the Stephenson hire.

The premier was not at his best.

The story was his tone. He was petulant and defensive. There were enough red herrings to open a fish plant.

My friend Parker Donham — familiar to longtime watchers of CBC — once observed that a certain premier believed the other guys' motivations were bad, but since his motivations were pure, nobody should criticize him.

Donham was talking about a different premier, but the shoe fits for Stephen McNeil.

How dare Connolly, or anyone else, question his motives? Don't we know how hard everyone is working? Don't we know how much better we have it since he was elected?

Broken freedom of information

Yet another angle to the story is the role of freedom of information (FOI).

This story would not have come to light were it not for an FOI request filed by the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union (NSGEU).

Maybe that shows the FOI system is working. After all, the surest cure for questionable hiring processes is publicity.

But when I was going through all the material, I saw (again) a broken FOI system.

Page after page of material is hidden from public view. Instead of getting the whole story, we get only glimpses.

What are we not being told? Who is being protected by all this redaction? Is the deletion of whole swaths of a document in the public interest or in the government's political interest?

Based on my experience with FOI, on both sides of the legislative aisle, I'm willing to bet it's the latter.

Here's an idea: Let's see it all.

Release the unredacted documents, premier. If there's nothing to see, then we'll all move on.

It's the very secrecy — combined with the premier's petulant tone — that makes me think there's more to this story than we've yet to see.

About the Author

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.