Nova Scotia·Opinion

Stephen McNeil thought he had teachers sorted, Graham Steele says

Political analyst Graham Steele says the contract dispute between Nova Scotia's teachers and the premier will leave underlying issues in the classroom unaddressed.

Cracks in Nova Scotia's education system are deeper than ever, the political analyst says

Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil mistakenly though he'd won credibility with teachers, Graham Steele says. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Stephen McNeil thought he had the teachers figured out.

He had their support in the 2013 provincial election.

Since taking office, the McNeil government has more or less done what it said it would do on P-12 education.

But instead of sharing the love, Nova Scotia's teachers are on the edge of their first-ever provincewide strike.

And Stephen McNeil is flummoxed.

Opposition politics is pretty simple. Figure out the top three irritants, then promise to do the opposite. 

When Stephen McNeil was opposition leader and trying to take down the Dexter government, he identified education as one of the top three (power rates and the Irving deal were the others).

Bye-bye Premier Darrell Dexter, hello Premier Stephen McNeil.

Shortly after taking office, the McNeil government appointed a review panel, headed by former lieutenant governor Myra Freeman, to take a broad look at the P-12 education system.

The other key component was simple: more money.

Politics of opposites

The Dexter government cut the overall education budget while increasing per-student spending. That was possible because each year the system shrinks by about 2,000 students.

Good demographics, good math, bad politics.

The Liberals claimed the NDP cut $65 million from the education budget — and promised to put it all back.

Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil has removed all the usual safety valves, leaving the pressure building inside the education system with nowhere to go, says Graham Steele. (Mark Blinch/Canadian Press)

That was always a made-up number but quibbling over exact numbers is for election losers. It is indisputable that the McNeil government has increased the education budget by tens of millions of dollars.

So with the wide-ranging report and many millions for the budget, McNeil expected teachers to stay in love through the 2017 election.

How could he have been so wrong?

Repeating arguments

Although a genuine effort, the Freeman panel solved nothing. Its report was hopefully titled Disrupting the Status Quo, but the recommendations implemented failed to actually disrupt any status quo.

Now, only two years later, hardly anyone mentions the report. When I raise it with teachers, they're dismissive: wrong members, wrong methods and wrong conclusions.

The Freeman report didn't earn for the McNeil government political credit — and neither did all that new money. 

Teachers are drowning

As part of this contract dispute, many teachers have been telling their stories, whether in person, online or at public events. These stories have given me a new appreciation for the complexities of the modern classroom.

The fundamental message from teachers is that they're drowning. The reasons are many and varied but they're drowning.

They don't want to hear that more money is being spent by someone, somewhere, on something. They're looking for a lifeline.

The premier's response has been self-praise. Can the teachers not see everything the Liberals have done for them?

McNeil's arguments didn't work when the first deal was rejected, or when the second one was or when the strike mandate vote passed. 

But instead of changing his arguments, the premier is repeating them more loudly and more testily. That's not a winning communications strategy.

No safety valves

Pressure is building, and the premier has removed all the safety valves.

He won't budge on any financial issue. His government's budget depends on a wage pattern yet to be accepted by a major union. If he gives in to the teachers, he has to give in to other unions.

He won't send the dispute to arbitration. He has Bill 148 to dictate the result of any arbitration at any time.

The teachers could take job action but McNeil will almost surely take away that option, too. If there is a strike, he will surely recall the legislature and push through a back-to-work law.

Destructive cycle

Teachers will return to the classroom but underlying issues will fester unresolved.

The only outlet left for teachers will be the ballot box, but where will they go?

Teachers have dominated the House of Assembly for at least two decades. The education minister is almost always a former teacher. You'd think we'd have education issues sorted by now.

Instead, the Nova Scotia Teachers Union has browbeaten all three parties, from Liberals to Progressive Conservative to NDP, and now back to the Liberals.

With the cracks in our education system deeper and broader than ever, where do the teachers go politically?

Is there anyone capable of breaking this destructive cycle?


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.