Why do new governments get a honeymoon?

Because, for all our cynicism about politics, we want them to succeed.

We wanted Darrell Dexter to succeed, and our unrealistic expectations for his government never recovered from its series of early missteps.

Despite a majority of comparable magnitude, Stephen McNeil comes to office with far lower expectations than his predecessor. His deliberately bland campaign included a few platform whoppers he’ll be foolhardy to implement (one big health board, deregulation of electricity markets, defunding energy Efficiency Nova Scotia), but for the most part, he is free from extravagant commitments. This lowers the risk of early disappointments, though not necessarily missteps.

McNeil has another advantage over Dexter. Whatever doubts we may harbour as to his own ability to handle the difficult job he has won, his cabinet includes a solid core of experienced and shrewd political veterans with at least the potential to manage complex departmental responsibilities.

Where Dexter had only Steele, MacDonald, and Estabrooks to inspire confidence, McNeil has Regan, Whelan, Samson, MacLellan, Glavine, and Casey.

They have a tough job. We wish them well because, it bears repeating, we all want them to succeed.




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.

How phoney scandals poison democracy

Moments after Auditor General Jacques Lapointe’s decision confirming Richmond MLA Michel Samson’s eligibility for an outside member’s housing allowance, but denying his current claim on the slenderest technicality, NDP House Leader Frank Corbett rushed out a news release.

In it, he falsely stated that Lapointe had found “Samson lives in both Halifax and Arichat and as a result his residency cannot be the basis of providing a housing allowance to Samson.” [Contrarian’s emphasis]

There are many things not to like in Lapointe’s decision, among them, the time and ink he wasted dreaming up residency tests not found in any legislation governing MLAs’ allowances. Nevertheless, he eventually acknowledged that the only test with legal weight confirms Samson’s entitlement to the Outside Member’s Allowance.

It’s true that along the way to this self-evident conclusion, Lapointe mused that Samson “lives in both locations.” Yes, and so do the 29 other MLAs who claim an outside allowance—17 of them New Democrats. Their jobs require them to live in two places. Conflict Commissioner and retired Supreme Court Justice Merlin Nunn nailed this months ago when Samson referred the matter to him days after a scandal-aspiring CBC reporter floated the bogus issue.

It is very important to understand that we have had, and will have, members elected to our Legislature from rural areas. They are required to work in two areas, their constituency and Halifax, for Legislature and constituency matters. To do so they must leave their homes and area for both short and extended periods of lime. Recognizing this, the House Rules provide for certain reimbursements to offset the extra costs involved.

In the end, Lapointe denied Samson the bona fide expenses his job requires, not because of where he lives (or where his wife lives, in the sexist reasoning of the CBC and the NDP), but because his Halifax abode is a house not an “apartment,” the word used in the regulation. As everyone now acknowledges, the word “apartment” was chosen not out of any preference for dwelling type, but to ensure MLAs only claim reimbursement for rental spaces, not real estate in which they are building ownership.

Frank-Corbett-Maureen MacDonaldEven the hyper-partisan Corbett recognized this when he said the rule, “prevents an elected official from using their housing allowance to pay for mortgages for themselves or their associates.” Then, brazenly, he rejected any plan to clarify the wording, “so that taxpayers are not left paying the mortgage for MLAs or their friends and then have to watch as they profit from the resale of property.”

In an interview with Contrarian last May, Samson categorically denied he has any equity in the Halifax house he rents from a Richmond County associate, insisting the terms are a standard rental arrangement. If Corbett has evidence to the contrary, he hasn’t provided it. He refuses to clarify the rule in a way that would focus on the distinction that matters, between rentals and mortgage payments, while clinging to the meaningless distinction between an apartment and a house, because it conveniently gores a Liberal ox.

In one of her least distinguished moments in the public sphere, Finance Minister Maureen MacDonald, who knows better, parroted the same party line.

Lapointe, Corbett, and MacDonald ought to consider the damage they are doing to public confidence in the democratic process—Lapointe with his querulous nit-picking; Corbett and MacDonald with their poisonous partisanship. Commissioner Nunn recognized the danger straightaway:

To be perfectly clear, yes, these reimbursement claims must be honest and made only when warranted.

However it is vitally important that our elected members of our Legislature are not open to public denouncement on the whim of a media member who, without first pursuing the necessary facts, raises a suspicion which is akin to serious issues in one or more other jurisdictions, knowing it will be scandal and embarrassment to the person involved.

We need the best members we can get and we must not put in their way a fear of baseless scandal and embarrassment brought on by immature and sensational oriented reporting. Our elected members give up a great deal to serve the people of this Province and should not be dishonoured to the public in any way without a sound basis of facts to support the matter or claim being made.

I am not using a “kill the messenger” approach but rather the approach that the “messenger bring the correct message.” Otherwise, over time, we will have fewer capable and desirable people offering to represent the public in a constituency to the detriment and loss of the whole Province.

Corbett’s release got one other crucial point wrong: after an election, he may not be the house leader who makes the final decision on any clarification of MLA expense rules. He may be sitting on an opposition bench, or even a park bench.

The shuffle: two afterthoughts

A couple of day-after comments about Darrell Dexter’s cabinet shuffle seem worth passing on:

First, a longtime New Democrat writes that, “Having to take Maureen out of Health to backfill Finance indicates a lack of bench strength.”


Second, a friend notes that, as a former paramedic, incoming Health Minister Dave Wilson should put paid to Nursing Union president Janet Hazelton’s campaign to featherbed the new Collaborative Emergency Centres.

Hazelton has complained the staffing model of one nurse and one advanced care paramedic, with telephone backup from an emergency room specialist physician, is insufficient to meet, ahem, professional standards. Nothing less than two union nurses will do, she insists.

The two governing bodies that regulate the nursing professions in Nova Scotia disagree. The College of Registered Nurses and the College of Licensed Practical Nurses have collaborated on a set of professional standards for the new centres that makes no such demand.

Promising to end rural emergency room closures was an flagrant fib at the heart of the NDP’s election platform. The CECs represent a sensible and creative solution to the problem—and MacDonald’s crowning achievement as minister. Wilson probably won’t be impressed with Hazelton’s thinly veiled slight to his former profession, and he must not allow union staffing rules to sabotage the CECs.

Presumption of innocence: a primer for Nova Scotia’s NDP

Back on the last day of June, CBC Radio’s Information Morning program put Justice Minister Ross Landry on the hot seat for the Dexter Government’s embrace of the Civil Forfeiture Act, a right-wing scheme to short-circuit the presumption of innocence. More accurately, the program’s listers put him on the hot seat.

The act lets cops seize property from suspects as long as they can convince a court the assets probably came from criminal activity. No proof needed. Just probability. As a standard of justice, it’s more Queen of Hearts (“First the verdict; then the trial”) than Justice Blackstone  (“Better ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer”).

Callers to the CBC understand the principle, even if the NDP Justice Minister does not.

Caller One: “Is it too difficult for our highly trained police service to obtain a conviction? Maybe it is. It would certainly explain why they’ve had to find an easier way to go, but it doesn’t explain why we are letting them do it.”

Caller Two: “This is 1984 guys coming at us here. This is Orwellian beyond a reasonable doubt. Due process. That’s why they fought the bloody wars. Isn’t that why we’re fighting the bloody wars today? This is outrageous.”

Caller Three: “With no due process and no actual determination of guilt, innocent people fall between the cracks. It is an unconscionable travesty of justice that gives police unprecedented powers and will lead to abuses as has been evident in other jurisdictions.”

Caller Four: “It surprises me that we are willing to stand by and watch such corners being cut in our justice system. We should all remember: We could all be next if this type of procedure continues.” Under restrained questioning from host Steve Sutherland, Landry responded with the sort of vapid talking points that are becoming a hallmark of the Dexter administration.

The act is another tool for police to go over criminal assets and go after assets that are the proceeds of unlawful activity.

Well sure it’s another tool — one democratic societies have eschewed for generations. The whole interview is worth a listen:


My question is this: What on earth has happened to Nova Scotia’s NDP? Why wasn’t this malevolent piece of legislation rescinded at the first sitting after their election? Where are Maureen MacDonald, Howard Epstein, Graham Steele? How can they sit quietly while their government tramples on the very principles that brought them into politics?

Bomber LeBlanc’s last act of defiance


Mary Cecilia “Bomber” LeBlanc, shown above with L’Arche assistant Mavis at the 2007 Cape Breton Island Film Series party for l’Arche Cape Breton, died peacefully Thursday morning in her home at The Vineyard, a L’Arche residence in Orangedale, surrounded by friends and caregivers.

Death came six days before her 60th birthday, and, incredibly, hours before a provincial health bureaucrats were to meet to begin planning her involuntary removal from l’Arche, over protests of family, friends, and caregivers.

Mary was a small woman with a steely will and an outsized capacity for getting her own way—and then leading a chorus of laughter about the outcome. Deaf from birth and without speech, she was orphaned at age three and spent 30 years in institutional care before finding a new life at l’Arche, where she lived for the last 27 years.

In her eulogy at Sunday’s funeral, l’Arche Community Leader Jenn Power* described Mary as “a silent woman who spoke volumes.”

[C]learly, somewhere along the line, she made a decision: that she would not let the circumstances of her life define or limit her; that she would stand up to those who tried to keep her down and say, albeit without words, “You’re not the boss of me.” In the disability world today, there is so much emphasis on self-advocacy. Truly, Bomber was a self-advocate before her time….

Mary’s death was her final act of defiance. For some months now, we have been in discussions with the Department of Community Services about whether Mary’s needs would be better met in a nursing home. Her family and her community were strong advocates for supporting Mary in her home at The Vineyard. And yet, the process was moving forward. On Thursday, November 4th, Mary’s case was being heard, and it seemed obvious that she would be placed on a waiting list for nursing home care. Instead, on Thursday, Mary died — the first thing in her life she ever did in a hurry. A pretty powerful act of self-determination.

To the officials involved, this is, I am sure, a complex issue, replete with rules, protocols, standards, evaluations, criteria, and, no doubt, budgetary considerations. Yet the meeting that would decide Mary’s fate allowed for no participation by her family, her guardian, her community, or her friends—let alone by Mary herself.

Here is an issue where Health Minister Maureen MacDonald could show leadership by deliberating on some fundamental questions: Must every death be medicalized? Do Nova Scotians have the right to choose to die at home among those who love and care for them—even, and perhaps especially, Nova Scotians with disabilities?

* Disclosure: As regular readers know, Jenn Power is my daughter-in-law; my son Silas, Jenn’s husband, also works at l’Arche Cape Breton.

Auditor General slams H1N1 readiness

hypodermic needle 3RC2Civil servants are happy with the Dexter Government’s methodical approach to policy because ministers are listening carefully to policy advice and deliberating before acting.

But the issues keep coming, whether government’s ready to act or not. The risk of Dexter’s approach is that ministers may fall into reactive mode, moving from crisis to crisis rather than driving the new government’s policy agenda.

We have already seen Health Minister Maureen MacDonald struggling with the discovery that she cannot wish away the problem of rural emergency room closures, as she and the party assured voters they could during the election. (More on this soon.)

Today, the government faces an alarming report from Auditor General Jacques LaPointe sharply critical of the province’s readiness to deal with the unfolding H1N1 epidemic. He urges “immediate” action to address key deficiencies:

  • No one is authorized to exercise overall command and coordination over government’s response to a serious pandemic.
  • No central agency has responsibility or authority to to ensure critical government and non-government services such as power, water, snow clearing, policing and fire response continue during a time when absenteeism may be high.
  • The province has not assessed the adequacy of pandemic response plans by district health authorities, which provide hospital-based health care service.
  • 55 percent of family and emergency room doctors surveyed by the AG were “not happy” with their ability to obtain critical supplies.


Given that we are currently experiencing an H1N1 pandemic, we feel most of our recommendations should be addressed immediately to ensure Nova Scotia responds effectively to the current situation and is ready for any worsening conditions.

Waiting for NDP policy

Dexter at the Pride Parade - mediumSeven weeks after electing Atlantic Canada’s first NDP government, Nova Scotians have seen little if anything in the way of policy initiatives from Dexter and Co. Senior civil servants, however, seem practically giddy with delight at the NDP’s methodical approach to policy.

“They actually read the briefing books,” exclaimed one official, referring to the massive tomes each department prepares detailing the policy issues an incoming minister will face. “They read them, and they ask intelligent questions. They are really into policy.”

Continue reading Waiting for NDP policy

Our new premier’s first misstep: a 12-member cabinet is too small

cabinet - 2 - cropped - medium

As Nova Scotia’s new government begins its third week in office, a critical early mistake is coming into focus: Darrell Dexter’s 12-member cabinet is too small for the job at hand.

Cabinet selection inevitably requires consideration of gender, ethnicity, and geography: Women must take a prominent place; there must seats for Cape Breton, northern Nova Scotia, the south shore, and the valley; Metro MLAs must not appear to dominate.

Legitimate political and cultural considerations of this sort do not necessarily trump such factors as experience and merit, but they compete with them. That leads to problems.

Continue reading Our new premier’s first misstep: a 12-member cabinet is too small