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.

Earth to McNeil: Cut Cecil some slack

That was a peculiar performance by Cape Breton Regional Municipality Mayor Cecil Clarke Friday. At a hastily called, 3:30 p.m. news conference, the mayor denounced municipal affairs bureaucrats for piling $4-5 million in new charges onto the financially strapped municipality, while rejecting his reasoned pleas for help coping with CBRM’s fiscal mess.

Since his election in the fall of 2012, Clarke has quietly led CBRM officials and citizens through a deliberate process to identify efficiencies in the municipality’s far flung operations. They pared capital spending, and made what appeared to be an honest effort to come to provincial (and federal) negotiations with clean hands. Then, just as council was headed into budget discussions, the province downloaded $4-5 million in new costs for education, housing, corrections, lower payments-in-lieu by NS Power, and an actual reduction in equalization payments.

(Under the provincial equalization formula, CBRM qualifies for the entire equalization budget, but will receive less than half of it, because program’s budget has been frozen for more than a decade.)

cecil-clarke-220Clarke’s timing was impulsive. Friday afternoon is when governments make announcements they hope will slide by with little notice. His worship arrived home from a meeting with Municipal Relations officials in such high dudgeon, he refused to wait for a more effective time to communicate his outrage.

Clarke did his best to walk an improbable line between arrogant, uncaring bureaucrats on the one hand, and a kindly, well-meaning minister, who will surely do the right thing once he receives the correct information his staff has been withholding from him, on the other. It was a seasoned pol’s thinly plausible way to ream out the province, while leaving the politicians in charge room to compromise.

Clarke’s credibility was undercut by his failure, earlier in the week, to raise even a mild protest against the Harper Government’s elimination of a development agency dedicated to Cape Breton. ECBC and its predecessors have pumped tens of millions a year into Cape Breton’s economy for 46 years.

A former candidate for the Harper Conservatives (who has promised not to run in the next federal election), Clarke all but cheered the closure, thereby making the feds’ adroit communications strategy that much easier. No doubt he believed himself powerless to avert the closure, and chose to keep his warm relations with the federal Conservatives intact. But to date, Clarke’s attempts to parlay his relationship with PM Stephen Harper and NS Political Minister Peter MacKay into anything useful for CBRM have failed. All this might make it easy for Furey and Premier Stephen McNeil to dismiss Clarke’s angry news conference.

They would be imprudent to do so. For 12 years—12 lost years—CBRM suffered under a mayor whose policy program consisted of a fantasy container pier and continual, childish attacks on the province. He portrayed Cape Bretoners as helpless in the face of cruel and manifestly unfair treatment at the hands of our rich Halifax cousins. It was humiliating and counterproductive.

Clarke campaigned against that style of government, and he has done everything the province could ask to put CBRM back on a constructive path to responsible government.

Do McNeil and Furey really want to create another John Morgan? No doubt Clarke could play that role. In fact, he’d be good at it—far better than the pathological Morgan. That would be a destructive outcome for the municipality and the province.

It’s time for McNeil and Furey to come to the table and negotiate a serious, concerted, cooperative effort to resolve CBRM’s budgetary crisis.

MLA Eyking, in office 64 days, takes 28-day vacay – updated

[See Update in second to last paragraph.]

Just 64 days after taking her seat in the Nova Scotia Legislature, newly elected Liberal MLA Pam Eyking left Canada for a 28-day family trip to Australia and Taiwan.

Eyking and her husband Mark, MP for Sydney-Victoria, left Canada on Boxing Day. Her office said she is expected back in Nova Scotia Thursday, the 23rd. Contrarian learned about the trip from a prominent Cape Breton Liberal who asked not to be identified, but said party members are annoyed at her taking a long foreign vacation so early in her term as MLA. Elected October 8, Eyking was sworn in as MLA October 22.

Longtime Liberal MLA Manning MacDonald resigned his seat last May after his decision to take a month-long Florida vacation while the house was sitting came under fire. The house has not been in session during Eyking’s absence.

Eykings and McNeilLaurel Munroe, communications advisor to Premier Stephen McNeil, said the Eykings spent two weeks in Australia visiting “their son, who lives there,” then continued on to Taiwan where Mark Eyking is on “a Parliamentary trip.” She said did not have details on any Parliamentary business he was conducting, but said such trips are common for MPs.

Asked if McNeil had approved Eyking’s trip in advance, Munroe said, “she made him aware of it before leaving, but MLAs don’t require approval unless house is in session.”

Munroe said the premier, “told her to make sure her constituency office is ready to handle any constituent inquiries that come up while she is away.”

A staff member in Mark Eyking’s Ottawa office who did not know the nature of the MP’s business in Taiwan offered to have a staff member who did return Contrarian’s call, but the other staffer did not call back.

Facebook pages of Eykings’ two sons list both men as Ottawa residents, but photos show one of them at an Australian surf camp in late October.

In an email to Contrarian, Pam Eyking said she was, “currently in Taiwan doing business trade for the riding and area. Over the next several days I have meetings lined up for CBU, Cape Breton fishers, and the Cape Breton tourist association.”

She did not respond to questions in a follow-up email seeking details about the meetings and comment on the propriety of leaving the country for an extended trip so soon after her election. She did offer to meet after she returns to Cape Breton.

Cape Breton University President David Wheeler did not respond to emails seeking details on any meetings Eyking is attending for the university in Taiwan. confirmed Monday that university officials “did speak to Ms. Eyking about making links for CBU in Taiwan before her departure.” The Cape Breton Tourist Association ceased to exist in 2007. The island’s tourism industry has been represented since 2003 by Destination Cape Breton.

[Disclosure: I have been friendly with the Eykings for many years, but I have also been vocal in criticizing Pam Eyking’s decision to run for the provincial legislature.]

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.




Cabinetry feedback: Other backseat carpenters weigh in


Our curmudgeonly friend drew my attention to a Canadian Press dispatch listing the factors Premier-to-be Stephen McNeil will have to consider when choosing his cabinet before he gets to competence or talent. This led me to a momentary reverie about the sort of government we might have if ability were the only factor in picking the government.

Contrarian reader Tim Segulin writes:

You never know, McNeil may just run the government out of his office the way Harper does and Dexter apparently did. That way important decisions don’t really get made by ministers who are implied to not be up to the job, but they still act as his regional ears to the ground and their ridings feel well served.

Ron Stockton has a different view:

If we give up all consideration of factors other than who is “best,” we’ll end up with a bunch of white men, mostly old but at least with old ideas, because it has always been old, white men who define what is “best.”

My guess is there are different “bests” depending on the background and interests of those setting the standards. All the more reason to require a broad representation and to have more than one white man making the decision about who gets in Cabinet. For example, let caucus decide who amongst them will sit in Cabinet subject only to those other representational considerations.

Seriously? Aren’t we past the day when aging white men with old ideas are the only people thought to have talent?


Our curmudgeonly friend sends along a Canadian Press dispatch about the process of assembling Stephen McNeil’s new cabinet.

However, experience is just one of several factors McNeil will be considering when handing out portfolios. The cabinet must also reflect a broad cross-section of the province’s geography and its ethnic, racial and linguistic mixture.

Our friend comments:

That’s right. That’s how we got Sterling Belliveau. What good would a cabinet be without a Sterling Belliveau in it?

Imagine what McNeil’s cabinet could look like if he had the cojones to ignore geography, gender, ethnicity, race, and language. What would happen if he just picked the very best people among the 33 members of his caucus?

Nah! Nova Scotia is far too committed to mediocrity.

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.

Thoughts on election timing

Since 1970, four Nova Scotia governments have delayed elections into the fifth year of their mandates. Three of the four got clobbered.

  • In 1978, Gerald Regan’s Liberals went almost seven months into their fifth year, then dropped from 31 seats to 17.
  • In 1993, Donald Cameron’s Progressive Conservatives went almost eight months into their fifth year, and fell from 28 seats to 9.
  • Almost five years later, Russell MacLellan led the Liberals from a commanding 40 seats to a humiliating 19-seat tie with the New Democrats, allowing him to govern only briefly with the slenderest of minorities.
  • In 2003, John Hamm went just 10 days into his fifth year, and came up two seats short of a second majority.

Darrell Dexter’s is the fifth government since 1970 to linger into a fifth year. If my guess is right, and he schedules an election for October 1st or 8th, he’ll have been in power four years and four months.

dexter_4Dexter would not have held off so long but for a terrible string of polls starting in spring of 2012, when Stephen McNeil’s Liberals surged into a first-place tie. The latest Corporate Research Associates poll, in June, showed the Liberals with 45 percent of decided voters, to the NDP’s 26 percent, and the PCs’ 24 percent. The N-dips claim their own confidential polls are better, but they’d have to be much better to offer any encouragement at all.

Polls taken between elections may tell you which way the wind is blowing, but they don’t tell you how hard. That last CRA survey found 55 percent of respondents undecided about how they would vote. People just haven’t turned their minds to the question yet.

That’s why I don’t think Dexter will call an election before Labour Day. To win a second term, the NDP needs to win the campaign. A plurality of voters needs to decide that Dexter looks, sounds, and acts more like a premier than McNeil, whose crowd-pleasing but benighted policy proposals, especially on energy, may not hold up under election scrutiny.

For that to happen, voters need to be paying attention. They won’t do that in the sweet summer days of August.

Even then, it may be too late. There’s a lot of anger out there—some of it warranted, some of thoughtlessly peevish. If voters get a notion to throw the bums out, no election timing legerdemain will stop them.

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.

The Liberal mailing list flap

On CBC Radio last week, Contrarian’s old friend Ralph Surette said Nova Scotia Liberals had dumped their last nine leaders — every one since Gerald Regan — before they could fight a second election.

That’s not quite true. The Liberals have had only seven leaders since Regan, and two of those took the party through two elections. Still, the record is fratricidal:
Liberal Leaders 250

The operative question is whether the Liberals will repeat this pattern when they review leader Stephen McNeil’s leadership Friday. A covert campaign to unseat McNeil has featured an inept website and a mass mail-out using a purloined copy of the party’s email list.

Party president Derek Wells launched an investigation into this breach of  party security, a move some criticized as merely prolonging a bad-news story for leader McNeil. I’m not so sure. It’s never pleasant or easy for a leader to fend off this kind of clandestine back-biting.

If anyone looks bad, it’s  Deputy Leader Diana Whalen, who has never recovered from her bitterness at losing the 2007 leadership race to McNeil by 68 votes. Suspicion focused on Whalen when the source code for the unauthorized email turned up an address containing the letters, “dboudreau.”

Doug Boudreau, Whalen’s constituency assistant and the son of former Finance Minister and one-time leadership candidate Bernie Boudreau (who supported Whalen in the leadership campaign), offered an eyebrow-raising “no comment” when asked if he sent the email.

Confronted by reporters, Whalen fueled these suspicions by refusing to ask Boudreau whether he had done so, on grounds that she wouldn’t take part in “a witch hunt.” She didn’t say why asking an employee whether he made improper use of  party lists constitutes a “witch hunt.”

Whalen likewise refuses to say whether she supports McNeil’s leadership, invoking the specious “principle” that party “elites” should not tell the rank and file how to vote.

This is tawdry behaviour. If Whalen wants McNeil defeated, she should have to ovaries to say so, publicly and forthrightly. If she wants McNeil to win the next election, common political sense dictates closing ranks behind him in the leadership review. Campaigning secretly to defeat him while maintaining a dubious public posture of neutrality doesn’t speak well of her integrity or her truthfulness.

Undermining McNeil is nothing new for Whalen. Readers may recall when then-Justice Minister Cecil Clarke got into hot water for refusing to allow a vote on a private member’s bill by Walen that would have established a committee to combat domestic violence. Clarke was retaliating against Whalen’s vote in committee to kill a bill cracking down on copper thieves (a bill other members of her caucus supported).

Whalen claimed fences, er,  scrap metal dealers in her riding had not been given sufficient chance to review the bill. In fact, rampant theft of copper from live power lines posed a grave risk to public safety at the time, and Whalen had deliberately sabotaged a deal between the minority Tory government and the Liberal caucus to pass both bills. Given a chance undermine McNeil, the risk of potential electrocution didn’t factor in.

In the ensuing uproar, Clarke was accused of putting scrap metal ahead of battered women, a phony meme gullible (or lazy) press gallery reporters embraced with alacrity.