Nova Scotia·Opinion

Kirby McVicar latest victim of toxic political culture: Graham Steele

Kirby McVicar has been carried out on his shield, the latest victim of Nova Scotia's toxic political culture, says Graham Steele.

There are parallels between Andrew Younger and the Mike Duffy affair in Ottawa

Former Liberal cabinet minister Andrew Younger, right, accuses Kirby McVicar, the premier's chief of staff, of breaching the privacy laws by revealing the MLA's medical information. (CBC)

Kirby McVicar has been carried out on his shield, the latest victim of Nova Scotia's toxic political culture.

I'm told he's a nice guy, and I have no reason to doubt it; but the logic of politics often leads good people to make bad choices.

Even though we both worked in the close-quarters world of Nova Scotia politics for five years, I don't know the man.

McVicar probably liked it that way: very influential, but in the shadows.

Closest confidante

It is hard to exaggerate how influential a premier's chief of staff is.

In our modern system of government, the premier essentially runs everything. The chief of staff is the boss of all the people around the premier. These people are the premier's eyes and ears and voice — and if necessary, his fist.

Kirby McVicar would have seen or spoken with Stephen McNeil every day. He was the premier's closest confidante, top adviser, and chief strategist.

The chief of staff is the second most powerful person in the provincial government, more powerful than any cabinet minister, certainly much more powerful than any mere MLA.

His loss will wound the premier deeply.

Duffy parallels 

There are parallels to the Mike Duffy affair in Ottawa.

Duffy, like Andrew Younger, was in trouble, and therefore unpredictable. There was a risk of reputational damage for the Harper government.

So the prime minister's chief of staff got involved, because that's what a chief of staff does. They make bad stuff go away so the boss can stay focused on good stuff.

The difference was that Harper's chief of staff, Nigel Wright, happened to be a rich man, and he did what rich people sometimes do to fix a problem: he reached for his chequebook. That, in the end, was what got him in trouble.

I doubt Kirby McVicar has a bank account the size of Nigel Wright's. So he used the tools at hand: he flattered, he cajoled, he promised.

One of his promises was to think about getting a government contract for Younger's spouse, to ease any financial strain Younger was feeling after being bumped from Cabinet. He reached for the government chequebook, or thought about it. He shouldn't have, but he was, to use his own word, "spitballing."

Kirby McVicar had a problem to fix. That was his job.

Plenty of sympathy

I have plenty of sympathy for McVicar.

What I heard on Andrew Younger's recording was a chief of staff doing his job.

Frankly, I'm not sure people understand how much of this stuff goes on in politics.

People who get into politics are often lovely people, but they can also be ambitious, stupid, petulant, fearful, demanding, indebted, or erratic. They are as subject to physical and mental illness, and to alcoholism and addiction, as anyone else.

For better or worse, working as a team is an essential part of party politics. Everybody has to show up and be on side. Making that happen is harder than it looks. The premier doesn't have time to do it personally, and frankly doesn't want to get his hands dirty. That's why he has a chief of staff.

Inexcusable lapse

I understand what McVicar was trying to do that fateful day in Younger's constituency office.

What I don't understand is why last week he decided to defend himself by revealing details of Younger's medical condition. He could simply have alluded vaguely to health issues.

Instead, he specified a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and a possible brain tumour.

This lapse was inexcusable. At least since Buchanan-era minister Edmund Morris was fined in 1988 for revealing private information about a government critic, politicians and staff are just supposed to know that there's a privacy line you can't cross. I knew it the first day I walked into a political office.

It wasn't a slip of the tongue, either. McVicar did a series of interviews, and repeated his error in each of them. Not only that, but he had lined up corroboration from a former staffer about what Younger had told him.

McVicar took a difficult situation and made it worse. Now the premier's reputation was at risk. In politics, that is the ultimate error. McVicar had to go.

Fanning the flames

The issues confronting Nova Scotia are big and complex. As I've written before, the task is beyond the capacity of our politicians. They come to office unequipped to deal with the real issues.

It's so much easier, and quicker, to focus on destroying one's opponents.

Just listen to the first twenty minutes of Question Period on any given day. It is ridiculously awful, as personal barbs and accusations are traded like an on-line flame war.

I have a lot of sympathy for Kirby McVicar, but he was, in the end, a full and happy participant in a political culture that fans those flames of partisanship.

And when the political wind shifted and the flames unexpectedly turned in his direction, he took a wrong step, and he was crisped.

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.

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