A rare—and welcome—case of real government communications

I have vented previously, here and here, about the quiet acquiescence of municipal and provincial leaders to the destruction of Enterprise Cape Breton Corporation. Why haven’t the Premier, the Minister of Economic Development, the Leader of the Opposition, and other provincial leaders spoken out against the elimination of an institution, enshrined in an Act of Parliament, whose dismantling will cost Cape Breton tens of millions of dollars a year for the foreseeable future? Cape Breton is still part of Nova Scotia, after all.

Marlene UsherMy purpose in this post is not to belabour the point, but to direct readers’ attention to a striking and courageous counterpoint to the unbecoming silence of  leaders who ought to have spoken out. It came from an unlikely source: the acting CEO of the soon-to-be-dissolved agency, Marlene Usher, in an interview with CBC Cape Breton’s able Information Morning host, Steve Sutherland, Friday.

You can find it here.

So much about this interview is remarkable: the tone of regret; the avoidance of forced cheeriness; the absence of scripted talking points; the unmistakable ring of candour. At one point, two or three questions in, you can almost hear Sutherland pull himself up short, as if to say, “My gosh, she’s actually going to answer these questions!”

Referring to Industry Minister Rob Moore’s false claim that all would be “business as usual” after he rolls ECBC into ACOA’s deathly grip, Sutherland said, “It kinda sounds like you don’t really think it’s business as usual.” Usher demurred, but went on to detail the kinds of offerings that ECBC could make as a locally based Crown corporation that will no longer be possible under ACOA’s aegis.

There was nothing insubordinate about Usher’s response, just plainspoken, truthful answers to probing questions—which is to say, a style of communication you almost never hear in today’s hyper-messaged nexus of media and politics. My immediate thought, given the Putinesque style of the Harper administration, was that the interview might put Usher’s employment at risk.

I don’t know Usher, but in conversations around Sydney in the days since the axe fell, I’ve been struck by the reservoir of affection for her and her staff.

“I get to work with some incredibly dedicated folks from ECBC on a regular basis,” wrote musician and music promoter Albert Lionais on Facebook. “They’re really set on helping to develop the cultural industries here and to help folks make a living at what they love and from here at home.”

Usher’s two predecessors, the mercurial Rick Beaton and the ethically controversial John Lynn, caused the corporation, and the island, no end of bad press. An unassuming professional, who does her job quietly in a way that earns the affection of those she is mandated to serve, gets no press at all. Give the interview a listen.

Losers & winners

Nova Scotians tune in on election night to learn two things: Who won, and who are the sore losers. Darrell Dexter was a smart loser, delivering the best speech of the night, a gracious amalgam of congratulations to the winners, and thanks and condolences for his followers, upbeat but laced with sadness he could not hide.

Perhaps the worst thing about the crushing defeat meted out to the NDP is the suboptimal quality of the survivors.

  • I heard both both N-Dips and Tories Tuesday night predict Sterling Belliveau will bolt to the Liberals who, if they are smart, will not take him.
  • DPR, the minister who stood by while her department nearly destroyed Cape Breton’s venerable Talbot House Recovery Centre, snuck through in a three-way race with just 35.3 percent of the vote, two percent more than the theoretical minimum. As the member who needed more babysitting than any other cabinet minister, mark her down as a liability for probable interim leader Maureen MacDonald.
  • By standing the gaff, Gordie Gosse and Lenore Zann (that’s Zann, Paul, not Zahn) win fresh respect as gifted politicians. Still, they might not be your first choice as  lieutenants to rebuild a party.
  • Frank Corbett, having maxed out his pensions, will lose money for every day he hangs in the back benches, a location that will hold little charm for him. Under pressure to stay until the Liberal honeymoon eases, Nanky will be eyeing the exits. Cape Breton Centre will be a hard seat for the NDP to hold in a by-election.

Jamie Baillie succeeded in restoring the party base, enabling him to address the province last night as a winner, albeit one with only 11 seats. He carried out this role with appropriate enthusiasm, but spoke far too long. Viewers want a spirited but quick thank-you wave from the second-place finisher, not a detailed policy address.

Still, it was tacky for Premier-designate Stephen McNeil to start his victory lap while the Opposition Leader was still speaking — a possible sign that for all his promises of a respectful demeanour, the new premier won’t be gentle in the corners.

McNeil has a tough job ahead, not least because of populist policy positions that will serve the province and his government poorly should he have the ill-judgment to implement them. He would do well to cast a backward eye at the lessons of humility so harshly meted out to his predecessor tonight.

That Don Mills poll

Don Mills sounds nervous.

Nova Scotia’s best known pollster has been conducting a rolling poll for the Halifax Chronicle-Herald, and over the last week, his numbers have pointed to an historic rout. For the last five days, he has shown Stephen McNeil’s Liberals holding steady between 55 and 57 percent of decided voters—enough to propel him to a lopsided majority.

“We’re under a lot of scrutiny here,” he told Contrarian.

Here’s the latest edition, published Tuesday morning:

To understand how unusual such an outcome would be, I looked at every Nova Scotia election since 1960. Over those 15 provincial votes:

  • The winning party got more than 55 percent of the vote only once: Robert Stanfield’s PCs took 56.2 percent in 1963, in what was essentially a two-party race.
  • Only three times has the winning party won more than 50 percent of the vote: Stanfield did it in ’63 and ’67; John Buchanan got 50.6 percent in 1984.
  • In all three of these contests, the opposition party or parties were crushed. The Liberals won just four seats in 1963 and just six in ’67. When Buchanan got just 50 percent of the vote in the 1984 election, the opposition parties shared 10 seats: six for the Liberals, three for the NDP, and one for independent Paul MacEwan.

John Savage’s Liberals won 49.7 percent of the vote in 1993, and took 40 seats to the PCs’ nine and the NDP’s 3. All of these number reflect the reality that, in a first-past-the-post election system, when one party’s vote percentage goes above 50 percent, the number of seats it can win goes up exponentially.

Here’s the historical record, minus third parties and independents:


[Yellow highlighter indicates a minority government. The complete spreadsheet, which includes third parties and independents, can be downloaded here.]

If CRA’s numbers are anywhere near correct, and I expect they are, then every assumption about this election goes out the window. Seats thought to be in play will fall easily to the Liberals. Some seats assumed to be safe will fall to the Liberals. The premier’s seat, Jamie Baillie’s, and those of prominent cabinet ministers, could be at risk.

Mills views this cautiously. Much could change in a week, but if the current spread holds, he expects both opposition parties will have high single digit seat tallies, “closer to 10 than to zero.” If the total exceeds 55 percent, Mills may be understating this.

“To have [a 30-point spread] in a three-party election is extraordinary,” Mills said. “I’m stunned by it. It’s very hard to explain.”

On which, more later.

How to lie with graphs

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PC Leader Jamie Baillie’s election promise to hold power rates at current levels came in a position paper that included the following unsourced graph, purporting to show that something called “energy costs to rate payers,” measured in units it did not explain, have increased by 27 percent since 2009:


Wow, that certainly looks shocking!

Contrarian is no statistician, and my graphic skills are tenuous, but I read Darrell Huff‘s classic How to Lie with Statistics shortly after it came out in 1954, and Chapter 5, “The Gee Whiz Graph,” stuck with me. Of the persuasive power of graphs, Huff had this advice for readers deploying them to “win an argument, shock a reader, move him into action, sell him something:”

Chop off the bottom.

Baillie did exactly that with his “energy costs” graph. He chopped off the bottom 64% of the graph. If you start the y-axis at zero, and display the graph in the same horizontal format, it looks like this (with apologies to readers skilled in PhotoShop and Illustrator).


It’s still a significant increase, but not quite so scary or election-worthy as Baillie’s manipulated format. If anyone has the time to parse exactly what’s included in, and excluded from, “energy costs to rate payers,” I suspect we will find that Baillie has selected the fastest rising component of electricity bills to inflate his point.

Bear in mind, too, that the period covered by the graph roughly corresponds to a reduction in Nova Scotia Power’s use of dirty coal from 80 percent to just above 50 percent. That phenomenal drop is a good thing, rarely mentioned by the company’s critics.

Even so, it’s reasonable to ask whether there is some mechanism that could give Nova Scotia access to North American electricity markets and the pricing stability they could bring. Since the first electricity was produced in Nova Scotia early in the 20th Century, we have never had the ability to import or export significant amounts of power.

The reasonable answer is: The Maritime Link, whose principal side benefit, steadfastly ignored by critics, is the robust connection to the North American Grid it would create through Newfoundland, Labrador, and Quebec to the north, New Brunswick and New England to the west. Aside from a guaranteed 35-year supply of predictably priced power, that is the best argument for building The Maritime Link.

[Disclosure: From time to time, I have consulted for NS Power and Emera on issues related to power rates and the Maritime Link. Reasonable people can and do disagree about Nova Scotia energy issues, but they ought to avoid misleading graphics.]

Begrudging Halifax media abet NDP chicanery – II

From the provincial (read: Halifax) media’s coverage of the latest trumped-up MLA expense scandal [detailed here], you almost get the impression reporters and editorialists think MLAs from far flung rural constituencies are a luxury Nova Scotia cannot afford.

Take the Chronicle-Herald’s overwrought assessment of the housing allotment for MLAs who live outside Halifax. The editorial ridicules the idea that any employer would provide “a $1,500 monthly housing allowance to lease a second residence near our workplace but only 40 kilometres from our home.”

I agree with Tory leader Jamie Baillie’s view that the 40-kilometre threshold dates from the “horse and buggy age,” and should be updated. But for all the Herald’s breast-beating, the problem seems to be hypothetical. The number of MLAs that close to Province House who claim the allowance is either zero, or close to zero. The CBC treated us to colourful clips from several nearby MLAs who have never claimed the allowance—Rev. Gary Burrill cited his need to “talk to my own dog every morning”—but I don’t recall hearing anyone who actually does maintain two abodes that close together. Who would want to?

So, yes, let’s concede that the threshold ought to be lengthened to, say, 80 kilometres. (I frequently drive 70 kilometres from Kempt Head to Sydney for work, and that feels like about the limit to me.) I doubt it will save much, but it’s a reasonable standard. Surely we don’t want MLAs regularly driving to Truro or Bridgewater after long days ending late at night, which is common for our legislators.

The Herald grudgingly concedes a need for “short-term housing for members who truly live too far away to commute,” as if this were a rare condition in a province that spans 750 kilometres from Bay St. Lawrence to Pubnico. Even then, says the outraged editorialist:

It should apply when the House is sitting and for a reasonable number of off-session days. MLAs don’t need Halifax housing year-round; indeed, those who are too rooted in the capital risk losing their allowance.

OK, let’s think this through. Over the last three full years, the legislature sat for an average of just over 68 days a year. Add anther 32 days (a figure I pulled out of thin air) for committee meetings, caucus sessions, legislative business, and various representations on behalf of constituents. It’s reasonable for a distant MLA to sleep 100 nights a year in Halifax. Will 100 nights in a hotel be cheaper than a $1500 apartment? Here, courtesy of Kayak.com, are the rack rates for the 15 hotels closest to Province House:

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The average works out to $169 per night. Let’s assume the province could negotiate 15 percent off the rack rate, and the selected hotels could always provide the needed rooms. Add 7% GST (because the province would recoup its 8% portion of the HST), and the total comes to $15,364 for 100 nights, as opposed to a maximum of $18,000 for the rented apartment. By my count, with an 80-kilometre cutoff, about 27 MLAs would qualify for the rental subsidy. This would yield a total difference of $71,559 a year in a province that spends $9,500,000,000.

There’s lots of room to quibble with my figures. Maybe the province could negotiate a much bigger discount. Maybe there’s a Motel 6 in Enfield or Cole Harbour. But realistically, the difference between the two approaches is small, and I can see a lot of advantages in giving faraway MLAs a stable place to lay their heads in Halifax.

Is $70,000 a year really worth all this sanctimonious bloviating? No it’s not.

So what’s really happening here?

What’s happening is that citizens, reporters, and editorialists have fallen into the lazy belief that politicians are unscrupulous cheats, motivated solely by an inclination to rip off fellow citizens. That this false caricature has overtaken our concept of public service is a much bigger problem than whether Michel Samson spends 161 nights or 183 nights in Arichat.

In defence of Baillie

Earlier today I voiced my own misgivings, and reported those of the Pictou Bee, about Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie’s campaign to slow the replacement of coal fired generation with renewable electricity. Ballie’s chief of staff, Rob McCleave, defends his boss:

Jamie’s position is far less about politics and much more about good public policy than your blog (or the Bee) suggests.

The Environmental Goals & Sustainable Prosperity Act reflected an all-party consensus, only a few short years ago, but before the NDP formed government. It balanced environmental needs with economic needs. It set fairly aggressive and world class targets for the greening of our energy use. The NDP, not to be outdone in front of many of their partisans, who understandably want us to get to green as quickly as possible, abandoned consensus. They reset the environmental side of the goals, which allowed them to claim having bigger goals than other states and provinces. This sounds like a good thing, but the very sustainability of the march to green power got lost in the equation. Having lofty goals isn’t any good if people can’t afford them, and seasoned environmentalists know, no matter how good an idea is, that developing and maintaining a consensus is critical. People must be part of the solution. If you lose touch with the parade behind you, go home.

Get to green as quickly as possible? Absolutely, but couple that with the very real  needs of the people you ask to pay for that greenness – and several other things at the same time – or the consensus will be lost.

Jamie Baillie would not go back on the EGSPA consensus, with which he agrees. And he would take the time to see if a new one could be built. What he opposes is jacking the targets, hell-bent for glory, without considering the impact on people.

Of course, reasonable people can disagree about the pace, but politicians should avoid pandering to the public impression that we can keep power down by sticking with carbon-intensive fuels. We might for a year or two, or even five, but we would be courting medium- and long-term economic disaster.

Jamie Baillie’s unforced error?

I’m a friend and admirer of Jamie Baillie from long before he ran for office, but his recent foray into energy policy makes me nervous. Granted, the climate of public (and media) hostility to Nova Scotia Power makes the utility an almost irresistible target for politicians aiming at the premier’s office, but Baillie’s demand for easing up on renewable energy targets sounds to me like a short-term anaesthetic for long-term pain.

The Pictou Bee, an NDP-flavored blog, sees it the same way, calling it Baillie’s “unforced error.”

[O]ddly, Jamie Baillie and his Conservatives have decided that attacking renewable energy is good politics (if not good policy). They underestimate Nova Scotians interest in getting off coal, and they underestimate their core demographic’s interest in good green jobs.

The Bee accuses Baillie of taking the phrase “bite the bullet” out of context from a government energy plan, then adds:

Now, Nova Scotians don’t have a lot of love for Nova Scotia Power. It was run into the ground by the Liberals and then privatized by the Conservatives. Both were mistakes. But the rate increases the UARB is awarding to NSPI actually have to do with the rising price of coal – the very thing the NDP is looking to move Nova Scotia off.

This game the Conservatives are playing wins them no votes. Nova Scotians are not rubes. They will choose a party that moves Nova Scotia forward, not one that runs into the past.

Not sure about the last point. Baillie’s attack on renewable energy targets is not admirable, but it could find traction with irrationally NSP-hostile voters.

[Disclosure: I have been friends with Jamie Baillie for years, and I have done contract work, mostly writing, for NS Power and the NS Dept. of Energy.]
H/T: May Zhang

Psst: your bias is showing

A recent story by Andrew MacDonald in the online journal AllNovaScotia.com included the following sentence:

NSP has begun slowly moving its 500 workers out of the Barrington Tower office to a new $54-million HQ on the Halifax waterfront, dubbed the Bennett Bunker for NSP ceo [sic] Rob Bennett [emphasis in the original].

The phrase, “dubbed the Bennett Bunker,” is noteworthy for having been cast in passive voice, a grammatical form journalists often decry as a way for politicians and similar miscreants to evade responsibility for their actions. Who exactly “dubbed” NS Power’s office building “the Bennett Bunker?” Why, AllNovaScotia, that’s who.

It invented the phrase on July 3, 2008, the day conversion of the building (which is actually rebuilt, not new) was announced, and shortly after Bennett assumed the company’s top job. As best I can tell from a Google search, no one other media outlet has ever used it. This failure to gain traction elsewhere hasn’t discouraged AllNovaScotia’s writers, however. The journal has used “Bennett Bunker” in 35 subsequent stories. Wouldn’t the honest thing be to write, “which we at AllNovaScotia.com call the Bennett Bunker?”

The cutesy alliteration hasn’t caught on because it conveys no fresh insight about the building or Bennett’s term as head of NS Power. Writers usually apply “Bunker” metaphorically to the fortified redoubt of an uncommunicative public figure who hides out to avoid critics or public accountability. The record shows that, as chief executives go, Bennett is reasonably forthcoming. He testifies before the Utility and Review Board, makes public appearances, takes questions, speaks to editorial boards, gives interviews, and participates in public engagement sessions.

AllNovaScotia’s use of “Bennett Bunker” is of a piece with the starkly hostile coverage NS Power receives from some of its writers, and from Nova Scotia media in general, who report electricity cost issues as if NS Power were solely responsible for rising world energy prices, ever tighter environmental regulations, and the Buchanan government’s understandable, but now regretted, decision to overcommit to coal generation in the 1980s.

The fact that unhappiness over increasing electricity costs has focused public hostility on NS Power does not relieve journalists of responsibility for reporting the reasons for those cost increases competently, honestly, and evenhandedly. (And, yes, the same could be said of opposition politicians.)

[Disclosure: I have done occasional contract work for NS Power, mostly writing.]

Random thoughts on the Cape Breton North results

With the coal mining neighborhoods of Sydney Mines, Florence, Bras d’Or, and Alder Point, and the unionized workforce at Marine Atlantic in North Sydney, Cape Breton North ought to be fertile ground for the NDP. Instead, except for a single election in 1978, it has brought the party nothing but heartache.

In a 2001 by-election, it put an early end to Helen MacDonald’s term as leader, passing her up in favor of Cecil Clarke, who insisted the riding needed a member on the Hamm government’s side. In the 2009 NDP, it stopped 165 votes short of joining the massive NDP tide. Last week, it handed the NDP government a humbling defeat, knocking more than 1,000 votes off the party’s general election tally (or roughly 800 after adjusting for reduced turnout).

Some random thoughts on the implications for all three parties:

  • The NDP retain their grip on Metro, but the they appear to have frittered away the gains they made elsewhere. Some of this is because they have taken necessary but unpopular steps, like grabbing the HST points abandoned by the feds, and insisting school boards start cutting their garments to fit their cloth. They may have been right to abandon subsidies to the Yarmouth Ferry, but they have been deaf to the hardship this imposed on the region. They were certainly right to abandon the foolhardy pledge to keep emergency rooms open, but having campaigned prominently on that cynical promise in the general election, how did they expect places like Cape Breton North to react where its ER is continually closed? By moving a planned jail from Springhill, where they have no member, to Pictou County, where they have three, the NDP have put that riding out of reach for a decade or more. Doing the right thing is hard. It requires persuasive leadership of a kind the cautious Dexter HQ has so far failed to exhibit.
  • Everyone has been waiting to see whether Stephen McNeil or Jamie Baillie would emerge as the main challenger in the next election. The CB North results give Baillie a major boost toward premier-in-waiting status. Disclosure: I’ve known Jamie for years, both professionally and as a friend. I like him, and think he’d make a good premier, but his position on education cuts is irresponsible. It’s all very well to embrace education as a motherhood issue, but  he knows as well as Graham Steele that continual budget increases in the face of plummeting enrolments are unsustainable. Instead of offering innovative solutions to that intractable problem, Baillie and his candidate pandered to the entrenched we-can-have-everything-and-not-worry-about-paying-for-it mentality, and the reprehensible tactics of the school boards and their fellow travellers in the unions. (See: Two ways NS could have better schools for less money.) Bill Black must be rolling his eyes.
  • What was Stephen McNeil thinking? He had three party members eager to contest the nomination in a riding where the Liberals had been also-rans for the last several elections. What an opportunity to drum up interest and enthusiasm! So what did McNeil do? He accepted a longtime ward-heeler’s advice to cancel the nominations meeting and choose an establishment insider. For two years I’ve been struck by the contrast between McNeil positive public image, and the distain with which so many part members view him. I’m starting to understand.

One more word about the Dexter Government. In discussions over the last few months with friends inside and outside the Dexter inner circle, the insiders have insisted the government has no problems in the rural mainland or Cape Breton. The outsiders are increasingly worried, in some cases dismayed. The fact the government—any government—has problems two years into its mandate is no cause for alarm. They fact the government doesn’t think it has a problem is ample cause.