The Best Cat Ever


The Internet needs another item about cats the way I need another 20 pounds, but I’m going to add to that list anyway. This is a therapeutic effort for me as much as anything, so I beg your indulgence. Continue at your own risk, because I cried a few times writing this.

My cat Sam died yesterday. It wasn’t a sudden death, and in some ways that is better, but in other ways it was worse. I called him The Best Cat Ever for years, because to me that’s what he was. Let me tell you his story.

Growing up, our home always had cats. Of course when you are a little kid you are susceptible to loving small animals, and I suspect the cat gene installed itself in me at a young age. I still have a barely visible scar on my right forearm where my grandmother’s cat scratched me severely when I was about 5 years old after I foolishly tried to play with him when he was asleep in the sunshine in the yard. He was an ornery old black tomcat that I was told later had been a vermin-hunter for her in a previous residence, and was not a cuddly cat. Over 50 years later I can still see the two streaks on my arm if I look hard enough.

But that didn’t change things for me. There was always a cat in our household growing up and that cat always slept on my bed. Why, I do not know, but it just seemed to happen. When I finally moved away from home when I was in my early 20s I had pet-free apartments and that’s when cat ownership ended. As a young guy who travelled and was often away on business it made sense anyway. But the gene remained, lurking.

By the time I bought my house in 1997 things had started to change. I was no longer on the road, I could see my future a bit more clearly, and possibly a return to having a cat around was more likely. A couple of years later I was working at NS Finance for the remarkable Gillian Wood, who also had the cat gene. So did one of her daughters. Alison had adopted two kittens, littermates unimaginatively but usefully named Blackie and Whitey. She had relocated to a small studio apartment at The Carleton Hotel and could not keep them. Gillian began doing the hard sell on me, saying that having two cats was better than having one anyway, and eventually negotiations began. I went up to The Carleton to see them, and they were adorable, probably 5 or 6 months old, bouncing around like a couple of Mexican jumping beans. Eventually a deal was done and they moved to Dartmouth. Gillian organized a “cat shower” for me with my co-workers a short time later so that I could be given some of the necessities of cat parenthood. It was probably as close to the real thing as I would ever get.

The names could not stand, so over the first few days I studied them with the thought of giving them new handles. Blackie was a sleek, shiny, mostly black Tuxedo cat, and he reminded me of a seal, so he became Sammy (the seal), soon shortened to Sam. His brother Whitey was what I later came to call a Holstein cat, white with dark blotches like a Holstein cow. Thankfully I hadn’t made that connection right away or who knows what I might have named him. Instead, he reminded me of a panda bear, so he became Bear.


They soon settled in and became quite the tag team. Being littermates they liked each other, did many things together, and there was none of the hostility that two stranger cats often demonstrate. Their play-wrestling matches never failed to entertain early on. They had boundless energy and could play with each other and with me for hours. They were both very affectionate, but had distinct personalities that emerged quickly. Bear was much more independent while Sam was a bit more timid and liked sticking closer to me. Sam also had the most pronounced purr I had ever heard from a domestic cat. He would lay down next to me while I was talking on the phone, and people on the other end of the line would ask me what that noise was. Early on, he would sleep on the floor next to the head of the bed, and I would hear him spontaneously purring down there. Soon he moved up onto the bed so I could hear him even better. I discovered that a purring cat laying against you at night makes a wonderful sleep aid, strangely enough.


During the negotiations, Gillian had insisted that they be allowed outside, something that she strongly believed in despite the strong indoor cat sentiment that was already quite prevalent. I introduced them to the outdoors carefully, first letting them out on the deck, then in the backyard. Soon they loved being outside when the weather was nice, and began venturing further afield. Brightwood Golf Club backs onto my property and soon I would see them, especially Bear, on the other side of the boundary fence, exploring the course. Sam was usually a bit less adventurous, but he too would go over to the golf course at dusk, and often would return home in the evening soaking wet after getting ambushed by the sprinklers. They both seemed to love it.


Both of them had one habit that drove me crazy. My deck has a privacy screen on one side that extends to the roof of the house, and they soon discovered they could use this to get on the roof. This terrified me, especially when I would look up and see Bear perched on the edge of the chimney looking down the flue. I would yell and call and eventually he would get down. But they both seemed to like heights – I guess a lot of cats do – and would often just go up on the roof to hang out and watch the birds fly past.

This behaviour would have one unhappy consequence. Just before Halloween of 1999 both cats were outside in the early evening. I saw Sam outside the door and when I opened it to let him in he was hobbling on 3 legs, unable to put any weight on his right front leg. I soon saw why – it was badly injured, bleeding from a gash and crooked, obviously broken. I suspect he probably fell off the roof. He made his way to his supper bowl and began to eat, much to my surprise. It was obvious that he needed attention, so off we went to the emergency vet clinic in Burnside. They told me he had a bad break, but they would try to set it and keep him overnight under sedation. The next day I picked him up in a cast, with instructions to keep him confined, preferably in a kennel, and to check in with my regular vet the next week. I didn’t have a kennel, so I set up the spare bedroom for him and kept him confined there. That first night back home I slept with him on the floor in there just to keep him comfortable. I think he slept a lot better than I did.

Soon a large kennel was procured and I installed it in the living room, moving in a litter box, food and water bowls, and some cat toys. He didn’t like it much and would sometimes yowl in protest, but overall tolerated it pretty well. I would take him out for scratches and cuddles of course, but he had adjusted to the cast, had begun feeling better, and missed his freedom. After a few weeks and a couple of cast changes, the vet took some new pictures and was dismayed to see that the bones were not healing. They weren’t really surprised given the nature of the break, and gave me some options, none of which were all that palatable. Euthanasia, if I didn’t want to spend any more money on him, which wasn’t an option at all; amputation, which they told me often let cats live useful lives, but was not something I wanted to consider at that stage; or a trip to the Veterinary College in PEI for more advanced care. That seemed the best though most difficult option, but thankfully before that occurred a different vet at my clinic had a consult over the phone with one of the specialists there, and they concluded that simply more time in the cast might be another option. Some cats were just slow healers, there had been a lot of swelling early on that might have delayed things, and they said if both Sam and I could stand it, it might all work out.


Sam had now become quite proficient in walking with his leg in a cast and no longer needed to live in the kennel. He was limited in some ways and obviously couldn’t go outside – it was winter anyway so he didn’t mind – but all in all he just went about his business. I took to calling him “Pegleg” which probably would have insulted him if he understood it. He needed me to get him on and off the bed at night, but insisted that he sleep in his normal spot next to me. I soon installed a footstool next to the bed to enable him to get up and down without the need for a leap. He even learned to use his cast as a weapon when Bear would want to roughhouse with him, something he no longer welcomed. Periodic x-rays at the vet showed some progress, but it wasn’t until one day in late February after I got home from work that he sat himself down in front of me, started going after the cast with his teeth, and quickly removed it. After some vigorous licking of the leg – the first time he could get at it in 4 months, after all – he got up and walked around on 3 legs quite easily. Within a day he was putting weight on the leg when he sat or ate, and the next day he was walking normally with virtually no limp. The vets were amazed.

Sam’s recovery marked a divergence in the behaviour of the two brothers. Bear continued his adventurous ways, becoming more feisty, wanting to be outside more often, even disappearing on a couple of occasions for over a week at a time. The second time this happened I was certain he was gone for good when he suddenly reappeared after 14 days acting totally nonchalant, like nothing was any different. I remember seeing him come up the walkway and not being able to believe my eyes, as I had accepted that something bad had happened to him. Sam, meanwhile, had become much more of a homebody cat, no longer going out very much or very far, preferring instead to hang around with me. He loved to eat, and the lack of exercise meant he became quite big. At his peak he hit 18 pounds. But he was very happy and despite some arthritis as he got older, seemed to be enjoying life. He still slept next to me every night and still could purr like nobody’s business.

In the summer of 2006, Bear disappeared again. When he didn’t come back after a few days I put up some posters around the neighborhood and a week or so later got a call from a neighbor a few blocks away. She gave me the sad news that she was pretty sure she had seen him get hit by a car in front of her house, and that he had been killed. I was very sad of course, and after a few weeks Sam seemed to miss his buddy.

In the fall I decided to adopt a new cat to give Sam a friend. For whatever reason, at that time there seemed to be very few suitable candidates available. Eventually I adopted a cat I named Coco from the Atlantic Cat Hospital, a small young female kitty who, it was later revealed, was brought here from somewhere out west. She was very affectionate when I met her, but as it turned out, Sam and her did not get along, mostly due to her being very hostile towards him. I often wonder what she went through before I met her, since her behaviour has remained very odd. She loves most people, but not other cats. But I made the decision to adopt her so I was not about to abandon her, and decided to make the best of it. She is entertaining if nothing else and to this day continues to tear around the house like a dervish several times a day.


In the fall of 2007 I happened to look out the back door one day and saw a cat that looked so much like Bear that I did a double-take. I opened the door to take a better look and he sauntered in like he owned the place, went to Sam’s food bowl, and began eating calmly and methodically. Upon closer examination it was clear he wasn’t Bear, but certainly a reasonable facsimile. While he was eating, Sam walked in, took a look at him, and reacted as if he seemed to think, “Oh, you’re back finally,” and just kept walking. It was the damndest thing. The cat then made himself at home in the living room and apparently decided that this wasn’t a bad place to hang out. I figured if he and Sam were getting along, I wouldn’t shoo him out. He looked to be in very good condition and obviously was someone’s cat.


I truly think Sam believed that Bear had returned, because they immediately bonded. The new cat made himself at home and spent the night. When he made no move to leave the next day, I figured it must be fate and concluded that if he wanted to stick around, I would keep him. I named him Fred, though I’m not sure why. After a couple of weeks, I took him to the vet and had him checked out. He was in fine shape, but needed neutering, so after he got his shots I made an appointment for that. The day before that was to happen, he went out and didn’t return. Maybe he knew.

Meanwhile, a large orange tabby that I had seen visiting the yard over the previous few years had started hanging around on the deck and now was obviously hungry. He was timid but could be friendly if the mood struck him, and I would give him the leftovers from the other cats. After 2 weeks of having Fred disappear, I figured he was gone for good, so when the first snow began coming down I invited the big red guy to come in. Again, he was obviously someone else’s cat, but I suspected he had been abandoned. He zoomed inside and settled in, never really being much of a problem and getting on well with Sam, though Coco immediately declared him her new sworn arch-enemy. A trip to the vet determined he was in excellent health and already neutered, so I was back to 3 cats. I had trouble settling on a name for him for the longest time, and eventually started calling him Rusty.


Super Bowl Sunday in early 2008 was notable for a couple of things. The Giants beat the previously undefeated Patriots, ruining their quest for a perfect season. Also, that was the night Fred returned. He had been gone for 8 weeks. Where, obviously, nobody can say and he isn’t talking. Maybe he went back to where he came from originally and decided he had made the right move in leaving the first time, who knows. But once again he just sauntered up the steps and strolled inside like he had just gone out for an hour or so. Suddenly I had 4 cats. I began to understand how you hear about these people whose houses get full of cats, and knew this had to stop. Fortunately, it did.

The one constant this time had been Sam, of course, and even with the various personalities and interactions among them, he made it clear to them that he was the top cat, and they deferred. The vets had noted he was starting to develop some dental problems, and he had a cracked tooth which didn’t seem to bother him much. But they were more concerned about his weight, and didn’t advise dental work just yet. Things were moving along pretty well for the cats, but less so for me. Some heart problems that were originally diagnosed in 1990 began to get worse, and I was scheduled for bypass and valve surgery in 2009. That happened on the Monday of the week before Halloween of ’09 – odd how so many of these events occurred at that time of year – and it was a rough ride. I was told later various stories of how long I was on the operating table – some said 8 hours, some 12, one person claimed it was 14 – and I somehow made it through. That week in the hospital is all a bit fuzzy, especially the first couple of days. They want to get you up and around as soon as they can, and by Thursday they tried to get me walking with a wheeled cart to support me. But I could barely move and was still on some serious drugs, affecting my thinking. By Friday I wanted out of there in the worst way, and around 8PM that night they discharged me.

In retrospect it was a mistake on both my part and that of the hospital staff to let me out. I could barely stand, much less move. But I wanted to get home and I guess I was being such a pain that they finally agreed. I remember my brother helping me get from the car to the door of the house, getting inside, and pretty much falling into a chair. I was in pretty bad shape from both the effects of the surgery and all the drugs I was on, and by about 10:30 I wanted to go to bed. I made it under the covers, and then experienced something I will never forget. Sam came in and took his usual position to my left next to the pillow. Then Coco came in and took the same position on the other side. Then Fred arrived and took a position down by my legs on the left, followed by Rusty on the right. This never, ever happened. They stayed there all night and were still there when I woke up the next morning. Amazing. Even more amazing were the drug-fuelled dreams I had that night, which centered on them, Vancouver ( a place I have never been), McLaren’s olives (remember those?), the year 1969, and that year’s new car introductions, all woven together. Where that all came from I have no idea, but it was hilarious. I learned that according to the dreams, Fred was apparently the designer of the Boss 302 Mustang. Imagine that.

As I tried to recover, Sam and I became even closer, if that was possible. I needed frequent rest, and Sam would always be there with me. He seemed to sense when I was feeling bad and when I was feeling good. It almost like we had some sort of telepathic connection, as strange as that seems. Most mornings previously he would wake me up with a paw to the face so he could get fed, but during that time he would just lay next to me until I was ready to get up. The other cats were less in tune, but he just seemed to know.

In the last few years as Sam aged, he began losing weight. I was concerned it was cancer, but the vet diagnosed it as a thyroid problem and put him on meds. They helped, but he continued to lose weight, just not as dramatically. His teeth began to get worse too, and several were lost. Despite it all he still loved to eat, and maintained his usual personality. Nothing much seemed to bother him, and his weight loss helped him move around much better to boot. He seemed great, up to about 6 weeks ago. He lost one of his upper canines, and apparently an infection set in, though it wasn’t obvious at first. That infection spread through his mouth, making it hard for him to eat, and also caused him to have difficulty keeping things down. A couple of bouts of antibiotics helped, but cats go bad pretty quickly, and by then it was too late. He was down to under 7 pounds, he was dehydrated, his kidneys were failing, and couldn’t eat without great discomfort. It was sad to see such rapid decline. I tried giving him every kind of food, tried hand-feeding him, tried giving him water myself, but nothing worked. He wanted to eat, but he couldn’t, and kept getting worse. He managed to keep getting up on the bed with me at night but it was becoming more and more difficult for him to do, and he wouldn’t stay long, preferring to sleep on the floor.

Some IV fluids helped get him through the weekend, but by Monday he was bad again, and Tuesday it was approaching pathetically pitiful. I couldn’t bear to see him that way. It damn near killed me. I probably picked up the phone 3 times yesterday before finally making the call. I loved him so much that it was emotionally draining, and affected me in a very profound way. The only good thing was that it happened over enough time that I could see what the end was going to look like, and it gave me a chance to talk to him and cuddle him and hear him purr a few last times over the past week or so.

After it was all over last night the house seemed emptier, even though for the last several weeks he seldom ventured out of my bedroom. When I went to bed last night it was odd again, not only that he wasn’t there but none of the other cats would come into the room. Normally Fred and Rusty will come in for a head rub as I’m getting ready before they go elsewhere to sleep, and Coco usually comes barreling in after lights-out to leap up on the bed and sleep with me. Not last night. Maybe their way of showing respect, I don’t know. It seemed strange this morning not to put food out in Sam’s normal eating spot, nor to have to clean his litter box. I’m sure we’ll all get back to normal soon enough, but it is a different time here at the moment.

I do need to thank Dr. Paige Marriott and especially Dr. Ginny Vaughan at Harbour Cities Vet Hospital for all their help, especially over the last few weeks. Ginny made time for me and Sam yesterday because she knew what it would mean to us. I am very grateful, and she was wonderful.


Rest in peace, my noble friend. You were truly The Best Cat Ever.
Sam 1999-2015

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Clear As Mud

Back when I was a young teenager growing up I didn’t pay much attention to politicians unless they became the subject for comedians and entertainers. That’s when I began to associate U.S. President Richard Nixon with the line “Let me be perfectly clear” after seeing Rich Little and others begin to use it as a tagline. It became a way to set up the audience for a laugh with the punchline that always followed it.


More recently lots of people (including President Obama and Prime Minister Harper) have fallen into the habit of using the line “Let’s be clear”. I always took that in a different way, thinking they were trying to be serious and emphatic. It almost felt like a challenge or a threat depending on how it was delivered. No laughs there for sure. So when I saw that HRM had chosen the line “Let’s Be Clear” as the tag for its publicity campaign around changes to garbage rules in our town, I immediately detected the subtext that went beyond the obvious reference to using clear garbage bags. They weren’t fooling around, and that became obvious when their detailed messaging started to appear. Residents were being told in no uncertain terms that they were expected to comply, or be sent to bed without their supper – or in this case, without their garbage pickup.

I bought my house in 1997, and a year later, a truck dropped a green bin at the end of my driveway. Like a lot of people, I suspect, at first I eyed it warily. But soon I found it useful, especially for yard waste. Food waste took a bit longer for me to figure out, since the countertop green bin took up too much space and was instantly relegated to a dark corner of the basement, but once I discovered the double-barrel strategy of using an empty cereal or cracker box on the counter each day for that purpose, I started to feed it that too. I was never sure where all this compost HRM was apparently generating was actually going at the end of the process, since I never saw HRM fertilizing their properties very much and I couldn’t imagine that anyone would actually buy the stuff, but whatever.

The same held true for recycling. It was actually easy to keep a blue bag in a can out on the deck for bottles, jars and cans. Over time I discovered that plastics could go in there too, and so I was making use of all the streams as I understood them. Was I perfect? No. Part of that was due to my understanding of the HRM rules, which were communicated spottily at best and often seemed counterproductive, like only taking certain kinds of plastic but not others. Why? That is like saying they will take clear bottles but not brown ones. If you are trying to change people’s behavior, you should make it as easy for them as you can. That is lost on the technocrats far too often, unfortunately.

When the idea of clear bags was floated to “bring people into line” with the rules, as some councillors termed it, my back went up. I didn’t want my garbage on display, nor did I want to see that of my neighbors, and I didn’t like the idea that I needed to be shamed into following the rules. Nor did I like the idea that a contracted garbage collector who wasn’t a HRM employee had the power to refuse me pickup because of what he perceived my clear bag contained. I did understand that some people were not following the rules. I had an example up the street from me, in the form of a neighbor who always had 3 or 4 dark bags on the curb every 2 weeks, never had a blue bag that I remembered seeing, and rarely put out the green bin. This despite living alone, being retired, and probably having the time to figure it all out. It was hardly a secret that he wasn’t following the rules, and it probably wouldn’t have been that hard to identify him and others like him and target him for some help and persuasion. But like a lot of bureaucracies, HRM isn’t good at solving individual problems, preferring to use the large blunt instrument approach. And so we are now saddled with clear bags and revised rules for how to deal with your garbage.

I watched the HRM Council session the night these rules were passed and knew right away I had a problem. The original proposal, you may recall, was for some number of clear bags each pickup day, with a “privacy bag” allowed inside each for your unmentionables. That immediately started being debated – what if the privacy bag was as big as the clear bag, what if people used it to circumvent the rules, what if what if, all sorts of hypotheticals. Now, what staff originally thought on this subject, I do not know. I suspect they conceived that the nested bag would be a plastic grocery bag or kitchen catcher, and that people would understand the spirit and intent of the rules. But no, that quickly got dismissed because Council seemed to think that we were all a bunch of miscreants who would use the provision to break the rules. So instead, on the fly during the meeting they came up with the concept of one dark “privacy” bag – I call it a cheat bag – per pickup, with every other bag needing to be clear, and with no bags containing anything inside those unless they were also clear. Seems to defeat the purpose, but OK. Sounds easy, right?

Right away I could see I was going to have a problem. I have 4 cats and 5 litter boxes. Yeah, I’m crazy, but they keep me from being even more crazy. Every morning, I make the rounds with a grocery bag and a scoop and clean those boxes. So every two weeks I have 14 tied-off grocery bags that go inside garbage bags for pickup. The stuff is heavy, so I split it between two garbage bags and even at that there are times when it probably should be split 3 ways simply because of the weight of it. It makes up probably 95% or more of the weight of my garbage and probably 90% of the volume. The rest is just like everyone else’s trash. But now this would be verboten. I could use my one cheat bag for some of it but not all. What to do with the rest?

While watching the meeting that night I saw that HRM’s City Solicitor, John Traves, was taking part in the discussion. I know John from having worked with him at the Province, so I made a guess at his email address and sent him a description of my problem. To his great credit, he responded quite quickly and undertook to get an answer for me. Unfortunately the answer, when it came, was not very good. The cheat bag could be used for it as always, but that would not be able to fully solve my problem given my volume. HRM Solid Waste was going to change their guidelines from not wanting cat litter to arrive loose in a large garbage bag, and instead would now require it to be loose, if it wasn’t in a smaller clear bag. Having as yet failed to find a source for suitably-sized clear bags, which I would obviously have to buy, this is bad on a number of levels. If the large bag breaks you have a huge, stinky mess on your hands instead of just a pile of smaller bags, and I can only imagine what will happen at the HRM garbage facilities. But that was the official HRM position.

As the date drew closer and HRM went into full campaign blitz mode, I discovered some other bizarre parts to the rules. Dog owners, it turned out, were in a similar position as me when it came to their dog poop bags. These come in various colors, but not in clear. HRM was insisting on clear, but nobody makes them. Now, how a government can mandate that people use something that does not exist escapes me, but there it is. Instead, HRM suggested people use sandwich bags – the term “shit sandwich” immediately comes to mind – and expressed hope that the industry would produce the doggy product in a clear format real soon. Amazing.

Aside from pet waste, there are a bunch of other complexities that boggle my mind. Things like used paper towels still go into the green bin as always, but tissues are garbage. Huh? I was baffled when I discovered this as I had never made a distinction. It turns out that HRM decrees that tissues contain “bodily fluids” and therefore are hazardous and go into the garbage. I mean, really? If I cut myself in the kitchen the first thing I grab is a paper towel since it is right there. If I take a bite of something and discover it has red onions in it, I grab a paper napkin and spit out the contents, which includes some saliva. If the cat barfs on the floor, it gets wiped up with paper towels. Conversely, if I have a tissue nearby I might wipe up a spilled drink with it. I can understand how the subject matter experts come up with things like this, but from a consumer point of view it is senseless.

The same holds true for plastic wrap and aluminum foil. The rules make a distinction between these items being clean or soiled. I suppose it is possible to be in a situation where you would have some clean examples of these kicking around, but the vast majority have touched food and are therefore “soiled” and become garbage in HRM’s terms. Why complicate the rules by making a distinction? I can guess that someone’s solid waste best practice list has this on it, but really – why bother? What difference does it actually make? Wouldn’t making it simpler result in better compliance overall, and less risk of running afoul of the rules?

My ultimate mind-blower came on the Halifax Recycles Facebook page, where someone was answering questions about the rules. Someone asked why plastic disposable cup lids weren’t recyclable, since they had the symbol on them that was the same as a lot of other plastic items that do go in the blue bag. The answer that was given boggled me, so I’m quoting it here for clarity:

Halifax Recycles The lids as well. The recycle symbol doesn’t mean a product is accepted as recycling. It is a symbol the plastic manufacturing industry chose to identify different types of plastic.
Like • 1 • July 27 at 7:07am

And then this got posted as a follow-up:

Halifax Recycles We recycle all plastic CONTAINERS and plastic bags. We don’t look at the number on the plastic, but whether it’s a container (tub, bottle, clamshell for example) or a bag.
Like • 1 • July 27 at 7:33am

This was all news to me. I’m certainly no expert, so I have no idea of why this is the case, but I had no clue that containers and bags were so valuable while other items made of the same material were worthless. In fact I remember my surprise a few years ago when HRM announced they were now accepting #5 plastic in the blue bag, as I had always put it in there anyway. Even at that I had no idea it was just containers made of the stuff. I have a broken plastic part here from my refrigerator stamped with the #5 symbol that I was going to throw in the blue bag, but not now. Surely this makes sense to someone, but not to me. Why such a distinction? Again, make it simple for people to use, and they will comply. Deal with any variances at HRM’s end.

Most recently, there was a communications kerfuffle regarding bags. Someone on Twitter noticed a Council member’s post showing a picture of a family’s first curbside deposit under the new rules and the declaration of how easy it was. They noticed that the recycling was in a clear bag and questioned that. The answer was that it was OK to do that. This caused much consternation, since HRM Communications has been quite clear (ahem) that blue bags only were acceptable for recycling. HRM was brought into the loop and originally contradicted the Council member, then later said that no, it was OK, as long as it was an arm’s length away from the trash bag. Talk about mixed messages. Now they were contradicting everything they had said on the subject previously, including their much-touted app, along with this . As Vince Lombardi once famously said, “What the hell’s going on out there?”

The reaction of people to the rules seems all over the map. Some just seem totally confused. Some are very upset. On the other side, there have been a bunch of people saying, “No problem, works for me, the rest of you must be just a bunch of complainers” or words to that effect. Well, no. If it works for you, I’m glad. Great. But if you think for even a short time, it shouldn’t be too difficult to realize that not everyone’s situation is the same as yours, and maybe the rules don’t work for them quite so well. To some extent the same holds true for those who say “The number of complaints just shows how many people weren’t recycling before”. To that I say it has nothing to do with recycling. It has to do with the risk of getting a sticker on your trash and having it left behind if you run afoul of the rules, which as you can see from the examples I’ve given are not at all straightforward on even sensible in some cases.

I really don’t think this needs to be as hard as HRM has made it. It seems as though they expect residents to be expert trash sorters in order to meet every variation of the rules. What if they just said something like this:

1. Green bins take all organic materials – food waste, plant waste, garden waste (including grass clippings, which while not affecting me, I know some people are worked up about), and any absorbent paper. Boxboard or kraft bags can be used as a container.

2. Blue bags take all bottles, jars, cans, and plastic items containing a recycle symbol. Waste paper, shredded paper, newspaper, boxboard, and magazines go in a separate bag. Cardboard is bundled.

3. Garbage is everything else.

Forget the foolishness about worrying about what is in grocery bags or kitchen catchers, and see how it actually goes. If your kid throws the crust of his sandwich in the trash instead of the green bin, the world isn’t coming to an end. I will even concede on the clear bag issue, although I think it is foolishness, if you give me some slack on what are obviously dog poop or kitty litter bags, or a bathroom garbage can liner. As it is, I will come up with a solution to the kitty litter foolishness we have now, but it won’t be as easy or as elegant as what I’ve always done. My suggestion to HRM is to try working with people instead of hitting them over the head with a blunt instrument. Identify the areas where there are issues and deal with them, rather than starting from the position that everyone will cheat. I’m afraid what we have now is something that will blow up in Council’s collective faces if the collectors and their masters at HRM solid waste decide to get hard-nosed about compliance. Time will tell. It all depends on how HRM chooses to execute this, and whether they realize that demanding perfection from their clients – namely, us – isn’t always the right approach.

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Government, Business, and Hit and Run Politics

When the Hamm government was elected in 1999, one of the 150 or so promises in their platform was to get Nova Scotia out of the liquor retailing business. That platform was one that I doubt they ever thought they would need to deliver upon, but as things worked out, they were elected with a majority in 1999 and had to start doing the things they had promised. The liquor promise wasn’t a top priority, but by the year 2000 it had been decided to undertake a consultation on what to do regarding the NSLC, and Price Waterhouse Coopers was hired to undertake an analysis of the financial implications of 6 different retail options, from a full Alberta-style privatization to an IPO to improvements on the existing model and variations in between.

At the time I was working at the Priorities and Planning Secretariat and was assigned as the staffer on the file. Michele McKenzie, the Deputy Minister of Tourism who worked for Tourism Minister Rodney MacDonald, also the Minister responsible for the NSLC, led the process for government, and I ended up working closely with her. The consultation was interesting because there was little consensus among the public on anything. Some wanted the NSLC to disappear in favor of an Alberta-style private system, while others thought NSLC was just fine as it was except, perhaps, that even further restrictions on sale were needed. The majority were somewhere in the middle, saying that certainly some changes were necessary at NSLC, but perhaps not something as extreme as an outright selling-off. PWC’s financial analysis concluded that over time the “Alberta model” would bring the greatest return to the province, but that a revitalized NSLC with some agency stores could return about the same amount each year if done right. Given that the government had just gone through a fairly traumatic period in dealing with the unions on a number of attempts at service delivery reform, the ability to avoid that on the liquor file was welcomed, and the direction to reinvent the NSLC as a Crown corporation free of government interference was agreed upon.

In July of 2001 amendments to the Liquor Control Act were proclaimed making the NSLC a Crown corp, and an interim Board of Directors made up of government officials was appointed until a slate of outside Directors could be found. Michele was appointed Chair and I was chosen as one of the interim Directors, while still continuing to work as the government staffer on the file. The NSLC we walked into was a very odd organization, one which few in government knew much about. The NSLC had not been very open to government over the years, and aside from the regular transfer of profits few in government knew much about what went on there. We learned that many of the management staff had become accustomed to being told what to do by previous governments on things like store locations and property purchases, and we discovered that it was just a few years previous that they had finally gotten away from politicians telling them whom to hire. They had been forced to starve the organization of investment in facilities, technology and people in order to give the government the annual increases in revenue it demanded. Without proper management tools at their disposal to help the business perform better, the primary way they met those demands was with annual price increases. To say management was dispirited would be an understatement. After being told time after time that they couldn’t do things, they had, in some ways, given up even trying. Many of the rank and file staff saw themselves as government employees, with the mindset that entailed. Others realized that they had to provide customer service, but they often received mixed messages from above when they tried to do that. It was a very discouraging environment, especially for a retailer. It was, in short, a mess.

When the outside Directors were appointed in December of 2001, they began trying to change things, bringing in a new CEO and directing him to bring in new executive management. Over time, a new group of Vice-Presidents and Directors, most from the private sector, were brought in and began to change things. One of the biggest challenges was the need to build a culture of customer service among the staff. The idea that store staff could recommend products, ask customers what they were looking for, and make suggestions that would result in customers buying something other than what they came in looking for, was quite foreign to some at the beginning. But achieving that was absolutely necessary if the NSLC was to move beyond being order-takers and become a true retailer that drew people in and offered them an interesting experience. Around this time the first strategic plan was rolled out, with the theme of changing the NSLC from a place where you went just to buy something and leave, to instead become a place to shop, browse and linger.

By this time I had moved to the NSLC at the request of the Board and was working as their Corporate Secretary, trying to bridge both the brave new world of private sector management thinking while keeping the government either satisfied, or at times, at bay. Unfortunately the succession of Ministers over the years seldom seemed to fully understand the concept of a Crown corporation and the role of the Board, at times issuing directives directly to the CEO on various issues, leaving the Board wondering why they were even there. The problem is, of course, that when the CEO gets a call from the Minister giving an order, it is very difficult to say “no”. One can try to finesse the answer and immediately contact the Board Chair, who is the person the Minister is supposed to be dealing with, but the result is likely to be the same. Board members never were so upset by this to resign during my tenure there, although there were a few times when issues arose regarding orders from Ministers when some probably should have.

Beginning in 2004, the NSLC held management conferences with their store managers and Head Office managers. They were primarily store-focused given that store managers were the majority of attendees, but tried to offer something for anyone in attendance. With all the changes that the NSLC went through, there was a lot to talk about, from sharing feedback about store designs, new technology systems like SAP that were being implemented, interaction with the marketing and merchandising staff from Head Office, managing staff performance, and most of all, the idea of customer service. This was all new to the staff, but the NSLC wanted to build a customer service culture, and there were all sorts of things introduced at these conferences to support that. After a period of adjustment, most of the store staff began to buy into the concept. If you remember shopping at the NSLC in the old days, clearly there is a huge difference now. Customers would comment on it to us all the time. That ongoing effort to change the culture is the reason why.

The conferences didn’t happen in the same way every year. Some years there wasn’t one at all. Sometimes they were done in a roadshow format, where the executives and some presenters traveled to 4 or 5 locations around the province to meet with that region’s managers for a day. But there were several conferences of the kind that was supposed to happen this year, where everybody met in a central location for a couple of days. In addition to what was presented in the workshop sessions, these had the advantage of everybody meeting each other, sometimes for the first time. There is an advantage to sitting down next to the person you deal with on payroll or logistics issues by email or phone and getting to know them a little, or being able to talk to a V-P who you normally would not be dealing with and letting them know how you feel about something. Cultivating those kind of relationships is really valuable in an organization the size of the NSLC.

The other thing that happened in that style of conference was the ability to hear and ask questions of the CEO. Since the arrival of Bret Mitchell in 2006 this was something he made sure to do every time. He made a real effort to interact with the store managers, who otherwise wouldn’t get to see him very often, and to let them know the kind of organization he wanted the NSLC to be. That isn’t an easy thing to do sometimes, especially when you’re dealing with a well-established culture within a largely unionized workforce. But he always tried to get his points across to them, and made a sincere attempt to answer their questions honestly in a Q&A session he always held to wrap up the sessions. This wasn’t easy for some of the store managers to get used to, as many were used to almost a military style command-and-control, speak-only-when-spoken-to environment. I suspect that kind of free and open access to the CEO is pretty rare in a lot of retail operations, but Bret really tried to make it work, to his credit.

The other thing that Bret did was establish recognition for superior performance. A Store of the Year award was created, one for each region along with one overall winner for the whole province, based upon a long list of performance metrics. There were also individual award winners, chosen by Bret himself based upon nominations submitted by employee peers along with a written justification provided by the nominator as to why the person deserved it. These became very prized and prestigious within the organization, and the people who won them were certainly deserving, having gone above and beyond to help the NSLC succeed. The idea of celebrating success was new to the organization, and it made a difference in the mindset of people working there. It was very different from the traditional government employee mindset. Again, this was all part of the cultural change that we were trying to achieve, and it was working.

After having a few of these conferences in Halifax, there was a desire to move them around the province. Part of that was due to all the distractions in downtown Halifax, which meant that some people from out of town were tempted to wander off and not take part in all the scheduled activities. It was a lot easier to keep people in the fold when you were in a more controlled environment. There was also a desire to move them around because the NSLC was, after all, a province-wide organization. So in 2011 there was a conference in Baddeck, and in 2013 one in Digby. Those offered some logistical challenges, so buses were chartered to bring people in from around the province at the least cost possible. By this time the second strategic plan had been introduced, talking about taking things to the next level by becoming more customer focused by using data analysis to understand customer needs even better. The introduction of Air Miles was just one example of how this was being implemented, and managers needed to be able to understand what it meant to them.

You might say why not pick a more central location, which is a fair question. The problem was finding a spot that had both the conference facilities and the guest rooms required. I gather that typically you need about 150 hotel rooms in one location for this. For whatever reason, places like Truro couldn’t accommodate us at the times we wanted. Given the type of conference it was, with lots of interaction, any sort of video-conferencing simply wasn’t feasible. It was something that had to be done in person. For a lot of people, especially those coming from smaller communities, it was a highlight. Yes, parts of it were fun, but it also built a real sense of pride and loyalty to the organization.

The last conference in Digby cost $140,000 apparently, and the one that was scheduled this year was going to be about the same. I remember that we had discussed it over a year ago when I was still working there, so it had been in the works for a while. The $140,000 wouldn’t include all the internal resources that would have gone into planning and organizing this over the last several months, where a few people would have been working to line up presenters, organize accommodations, work with the host venue, get registration organized, prepare agendas and presentation materials, and get people’s preferences for roommates, meal choices and the like taken care of. Sadly, all of this significant work is now out the window given that the event scheduled for a few weeks from now was cancelled by the Minister after a sideswipe by the PC Party in the midst of the embattled government’s attempts to defend their budget.

Take a step back and look at this from a business point of view. The NSLC is a company that employs about 1500 people working out of over 100 locations. It generates over $600,000,000 in sales revenue every year, and returns about $228,000,000 to the province in profits. Compared to that, the $140,000 cost is insignificant. Compared to the provincial budget of nearly $10 billion, it is really, really, really insignificant. Now, if it was wasteful as some have suggested, then the amount shouldn’t matter – it should go. But I can attest that it wasn’t wasteful given what these sessions helped achieve. I don’t care if someone thinks that nobody should have been offered a scallop when it was held in Digby, or that there shouldn’t have been an evening where people were entertained after Bret presented the awards to that year’s winners during a dinner, in order to both celebrate success and keep folks occupied for a few hours rather than going back to their rooms and doing who-knows-what. I have no problem arguing that it is a cost of doing business in an organization like this. The $140,000 cost is the same as hiring a senior administrator in a government department, university or health authority. And nobody would have a clue if they added one, or 100, of those this year across the system. It would just happen and nobody would be the wiser. Who knows, maybe it has.

This sort of thing is, in fact, exactly why the NSLC became a Crown corporation in 2001, to avoid having politicians make hit-and-run attacks like this to which the government feels compelled to respond. The correct answer for the government to respond with should have been something along the lines of how the business plan includes a bottom-line increase this year, that they always ensure due economy in their operations, and that any questions should really be addressed to the Board of the NSLC. Some would say that the $140,000 should instead be used for health care or some other good cause. That is exactly the kind of thinking that led to the old NSLC not being able to invest in their facilities and people, and which kept them from being able to achieve the results the new NSLC has turned in over the last decade. The old saying “you have to spend money to make money” is something most people in business would understand and agree with, but seems to be foreign to those in the political arena. The focus on cutting costs in government is necessary. But NSLC is not like a government department. It does not simply generate costs like a government department. It is a business, trying to satisfy consumer wants and needs in order to generate revenue. You have to spend to do that. The secret is spending wisely. In my opinion, conferences like these – not an extravagant party, as some have tried to characterize it – are a necessary thing for a successful business.

Last week’s broadside by the PC Party about the conference wasn’t the first time this sort of thing has happened. You might remember 2 years ago, Jamie Baillie made some noise in the press questioning why NSLC’s expenses had gone up by what he claimed was over $100 million over the previous 10 years while the volume of liquor sold had only increased by a smaller percentage. While that is a fairly foolish way to measure things in a retail organization – your expenses are going to go up over a 10-year period even if you don’t sell one more drop of product, simply because of inflation – more importantly, it ignores where the NSLC started from and where it is now in terms of facilities, product assortment, technology, and people. It was a broken organization before, and now it is not. It is that simple, and he likely knew that given his financial background. But hit-and-run attacks by politicians always get them some headlines, and that is really all they are designed to do. If the government reacts without thinking and makes a bad decision, so much the better from their perspective. Perverse, but sadly true.

If you look at the first 10 years the NSLC was a Crown corporation you can see what I’m talking about in terms of spending money to make money. Over that period, overall sales went up by $197 million. Volume of liquid sold increased by about 100,000 litres or about 13%, so more product was sold. Gross profit increased by $120 million, and more significantly, the margin on that product went from 49.5% to 54% thanks to better management – things like better purchasing, better marketing, better selling skills, and better inventory management. While expenses went up due to investing in the business, bottom-line profits after accounting for all those expenses increased by over $62 million annually. That is money that goes straight back to the government to spend on all those good causes every single year. That’s a pretty good return on investment. If you could, you would do that every day of the week. It is simply a money machine.

Working in the capacity I did at the NSLC you sometimes got the impression that everyone hated the organization based upon what you saw in the press. The customer satisfaction data told us otherwise – they were consistently some pretty impressive numbers after the changes that the organization made had been in place for a while – but that didn’t stop the politicians and press from trying to convince people otherwise. Liquor retailing is something most people seem to have an opinion on, and they apparently love to talk about it.  If you look at the comments in the online versions of the coverage of this in the Herald and CBC sites (I know, DON’T LOOK AT THE COMMENTS!), you see a shocking degree of misinformation among those sharing their wisdom. Many used the $140,000 cost as a jumping-off point to say the whole organization should be sold or dismantled. Talk about throwing the baby out with the bathwater (privatization is a very complex question that goes well beyond this discussion, but suffice it to say that it is not a slam dunk by any means). Some contended it wasn’t actually a business at all, that there was no need for strategy or management, because the product magically sold itself. Now, I have yet to have a product walk up to me and tell me to buy it, but apparently such things exist. There were several saying that the NSLC “got caught” doing something it shouldn’t have been doing. Ridiculous, as this was hardly a secret. They had done it for years, Ministers had always been briefed in advance, end of story. There were many along the lines of “I can’t get this so why should they?”, the all-too-typical attitude of many, and “they all make too much and get bonuses too!” (nobody at NSLC gets bonuses, and haven’t for years). And then there was the ever-popular “Booze is too expensive and this is why”, which fails to recognize that prices all across Canada are generally comparable within a narrow range, and that the cost of this is virtually nil on a $600 million sales line. It’s really quite sad overall. The best I can offer is that those who say “DON’T READ THE COMMENTS” are quite correct.

I can guess that the decision to cancel the conference led to a very bad day at the NSLC last Friday. Not because it was an extravagant party that was kiboshed, and not because anyone got caught doing something that they shouldn’t have. The costs associated with this would have been included in the NSLC’s business plan, which was included in the provincial budget and which would have been already been approved by their Minister. It would not have been a line item because that is not how NSLC budgets (or those of any Crown corp) get submitted. They are supposed to be free to manage the details of what they submit within a framework of management responsibility and policy. There is no policy of which I am aware that does not allow conferences involving employees of the broader public sector (NSLC employees are no longer civil servants). One wonders if employees of health authorities, school boards and universities will also now be prohibited from attending conferences. Nor would they have known anything in advance about the cuts to other areas of government that were announced in the provincial budget. In the midst of the barrage of criticism about the cuts to the provincial budget, the PC Party found an opportunity to fling another spitball at the government, and they did something dumb in response.

This was simply a bad, reactive decision by the government to force this to be cancelled. It won’t save anywhere close to the $140,000 budget since many of the costs would have already been paid or committed and are unavoidable. In the end, I’d guess that maybe 50%-60% of the total can be avoided. But there is a new price to be paid, because the bad day experienced by those at the NSLC was ultimately due to that decision being very reminiscent of the bad old Nova Scotia Liquor Commission days when government meddled in their decisions on a regular basis. One can only hope this isn’t the start of a pattern that affects the ability of those at the NSLC to run their business operations without undue interference from politicians. The chances of the government changing their minds on this are virtually nil, given everything else they are grappling with right now. Bad on the PC Party for making it an issue, and bad on the government for their response. But regardless, it’s a shame.

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The Great Halifax Snow Job

I have always hated winter, and as I get older that sentiment only seems to get worse. This year in particular – at least over the last few weeks – those of us in Halifax have taken it on the chin from winter. But that has been nothing like the pummeling the city has taken from citizens after their poor job of clearing the snowfalls after these last storms.

I remember back in the 1970s when I was still living at my parents’ home the routine of clearing the sidewalks after a snowfall. Often that job fell to me. I didn’t like doing it much, but since my Navy-man dad would get on my case if I didn’t do it to his standards, I usually did a pretty good job at it most of the time. The worst part then as now was the end of the driveway where the city plows would fill it in while clearing the streets.

Having lived in south-end Halifax for 15 years and walking to work every day, I experienced the good, bad and ugly of sidewalk snow-clearing in the 1980s and ’90s, and it was a pain. Corners, especially, even on places like Spring Garden Road, were often an obstacle course after a snowfall. Sidewalks that were not cleared quickly soon got trampled into ice, and walking was often challenging. Every year the news media would report on problems with Halifax sidewalks, and in extreme cases the city would ticket properties whose sidewalks were chronically un-cleared. The biggest problems were often attributed to rental properties whose tenants did not shovel and whose owners did not arrange for clearing otherwise. It was a particular problem for rental units near the universities in the south end.

When I bought my house in Dartmouth in 1997 I was pleased to discover that the city cleared sidewalks here. That turned out to be only a partial blessing, though, as I soon realized it still meant that I would need to shovel the front and rear walkways and stairs to my house, along with the driveway and the intersection where it meets the street. Really, the sidewalk clearing was maybe 25% of the total effort required after a snowfall, so while the city service was appreciated, as a homeowner it wasn’t a godsend. I came to the realization that the main benefit was providing a somewhat predictable and consistent level of sidewalk clearing for pedestrians, which while perhaps not as good as that done by a finicky homeowner, was at least passable and avoided the issues that Halifax had with those who did not shovel at all.

For most of that time, the equipment used for the sidewalks were dedicated sidewalk plows that I assume were leftover from the old City of Dartmouth days. They did a decent job most of the time, though never to the same standard as a conscientious person shoveling would, because the combination of a plow blade combined with uneven sidewalk slabs always left a coating of snow on the surface. Usually, though, they would drop salt afterwards and left a walkable surface most of the time. The one exception was White Juan in 2004, when close to 3 feet of snow defeated all attempts to clear it for days. Eventually some commercial snowblower equipment arrived and slowly cleared it away. I remember watching it occur and it was slow work even for those machines.

A few years ago the old sidewalk plows seemed to go away – probably having reached end of service life – and were replaced with Bobcats run by contractors. These did nowhere as good a job, leaving a surface that was worse than the plows and tearing up turf and damaging property in the process. Thankfully, this year the dedicated sidewalk plows have returned, a few times this past couple of weeks with snowblower attachments instead of plow blades. I believe they are city-owned machines and I hope they keep using these. They don’t do a perfect job either, but seem to be the best you can hope for from something mechanized. To get down to bare concrete they need a follow-up with salt or other chemicals.

The past few weeks have not been White Juan-caliber, but have unquestionably been tough. Lots of snow mixed in with an extended bout of freezing rain and some exceptionally low temperatures in between have made everything a mess. The city has been saying that the low temps make salt ineffective, but it seems pretty obvious to me that they are not using anywhere near as much salt as they once did on either the streets or sidewalks. Street clearing was not good after the latest storm, and most streets are very narrow thanks to snowbanks that have not been pushed back. Whatever the reason, the frequency of appearances by street snowplows here has been noticeably reduced, and there has not been anywhere near as much salt applied in my observation either – good for the environment, perhaps, but hazardous for driving. We have not seen salt on the sidewalks on my street this week either. There is a lot of caked ice on both surfaces and it is very slick.

The complaints I hear from residents on the Halifax side, where sidewalk clearing was just introduced last year, are legion. I have seen pictures taken by people of areas where sidewalk clearing has not been done at all, and others where a pass with a Bobcat has just made a slick surface out of the snow that had been there. It clearly is not as good as the clearing that would have been done by a responsible homeowner. Overall, is it better than the previous system where some properties were not cleared at all? I suspect it isn’t, because you could tolerate a few uncleared sections if the rest of the block was bare concrete to walk on. Now it is just all mediocre at best. It strikes me – forgive me for saying it – like our health care system, where everybody gets some level of service, but nowhere near the kind of care you would get in the USA, say, if you had good health insurance. That is often the nature of public services. Everybody gets something, but you seldom get the superior level you would like, due to cost.

Regardless of the service, be it health care or sidewalk clearing, it all comes down to funding. If the funds are there to pay for good service, that’s what you will get. For that reason I am cutting some slack for Linda Mosher, the city councillor who proposed the move to have the city clear all Halifax sidewalks. It is the job of city staff to come up with reasonably accurate budgets for providing a given level of service. It seems painfully obvious that the city is coming up short in that regard. The kind of storms we have had the last few weeks are unusual, but not unheard of around here. It is Canada, and it is winter, after all. Did the city’s estimates not take into account that we might get 3 significant snowfalls in 2 weeks during February? I can only assume they failed to construct estimates based on that scenario in terms of equipment, staff, contractor resources, and budgets. They just seemed remarkably ill-prepared this last time around. There are lots of other things one could be critical of too, like the generally poor street plowing, the encroachment of snowbanks on street widths, the failure to remove snowbanks at bus stops and hydrants, and their lack of ice-melting, but those are bigger issues than sidewalk clearing. Hopefully some hard questions will be raised by Council about the capacity and cost of providing adequate service, and what the expectations of citizens ought to reasonably be when it snows. It is a tough job, and maybe we are just expecting too much. I don’t know enough to say for certain.

Personally, I think sidewalk clearing by the city is not a necessity and at best is more of a nice-to-have. For my money, I would rather take on the sidewalks myself. But there is a role the city could, and perhaps should, play. They should use their equipment to clear intersection corners, which would have not only the advantage of removing the obstacles created by street plows for pedestrians, but which would also make visibility better for drivers. They should be ensuring that bus stops and hydrants are free of snowbanks as soon as possible. And if they really want to perform a service for homeowners, they could take responsibility for removing the snowbanks left by street plows at the end of driveways, which are always the worst thing for a homeowner to deal with. Instead of clearing sidewalks, that would be a useful service we would really appreciate.

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On Retirement

On Friday afternoon, May 31, 2014, I walked out of my office at the NSLC headquarters for the last time as Vice-President, Government & Public Affairs/Corporate Secretary. That brought to an end a little over 32 years of employment with the Province of Nova Scotia, which began in the spring of 1982 at the Victoria General Hospital, and which then took me to the Department of Municipal Affairs, followed by stints at Finance, the Priorities and Planning Secretariat, and Tourism and Culture before ending up at the NSLC. Retirement is not something you have a lot of practice at doing, and now that I’ve come to the end of 2014 and moved into 2015, what will be my first full year of retirement, I thought I’d reflect on the last 6-plus months of not working for a living.

At first, not getting up and going to work everyday felt just like an extended vacation. The fact that it was starting to be summer helped a lot in that regard. And there was no doubt that I needed a vacation from it all. After adding the Communications and Public Affairs role to my existing Corporate Secretary job in early 2013, work life had been hectic. I was thrown in at the deep end when, about a week after starting in the new role, NSLC had the great price change debacle over the Easter weekend at the end of March, 2013. You might remember that – price changes that were supposed to kick in on April 1st instead were mistakenly sent to store systems after close of business overnight prior to our stores being closed for Good Friday on March 29th, and we collected a bit over $27,000 in extra revenue on Saturday. It hit the media before anyone internally knew exactly how it had occurred, and then to make matters worse, Jamie Baillie decided to make it a political issue by saying some foolishness about how an investigation into the whole thing was required because we had obviously done it on purpose. Sure, we’ll tell the world we’re raising prices on Monday, but we’ll intentionally slip it in on Saturday before a holiday instead, because nobody will ever notice, right? It’s beyond idiotic, but that’s what can happen when you give an opposition politician a voice sometimes.

We recovered nicely from that, I thought, when we decided to give the extra money to a charity and set up a quick online poll to help people chose. We nominated 4 charitable organizations, although even that wasn’t easy – our original list had one high-profile charity for whom our staff had collected huge sums of money over the years, and we thought they would be a no-brainer. Imagine our surprise when they said no, they weren’t interested in our offer. I was steamed, to be honest, and I still don’t fully understand why they said no. But in the end it all worked out, with the money going to the Canadian Mental Health Association, despite an attempt by some well-meaning but misguided person to stuff the online ballot box in favor of another organization, and a few overly-cynical voices on social media claiming it was all a pre-planned stunt. I guess no good deed goes unpunished. But the local reps from CMHA were very grateful and sincere in their thanks, so I felt good about it when it was all done.

From there it seemed like we went from crisis to crisis for a while, struggling with a new Minister who seemed to have difficulty understanding the business data we presented, and who was not at all comfortable with the NSLC role in balancing retail sales with social responsibility. She even took the rather extreme step of directing us to pull a social responsibility campaign just prior to it kicking off because she didn’t seem to understand it – not that we were asking for her approval anyway, since we had a Board of Directors to make those decisions. Unfortunately for us, the NDP government was in its last days prior to calling an election and they were hyper-sensitive to anything at that point. Shortly thereafter was some additional foolishness incited by the good folks at Capital Health, who accused both the NSLC and Molson of doing advertising directed at children – us with a billboard that included the tagline “Cocktail, anyone?” and Molson for posting a picture of a glass filled with their cider which the anti-alcohol zealots said looked like apple juice and hence was aimed at kids. I mean, you couldn’t make this stuff up if you tried, but there it was, and we had to go into explainer mode yet again.

Things settled down a bit after the new government came in, although there was the usual extra work involved in preparing briefings and backgrounders on all the things a new government and a new Minister require to get up to speed. In November of 2013, the Department of Health then released the badly flawed Alcohol Indicators Report I wrote about in “Bamboozled” which caused a lot of dust to be kicked up for a while, but the new government had other issues to worry about and soon things were back to a more normal pace for me. I found myself feeling increasingly frustrated when the requests for briefings on the same issues that I had previously prepared so many times for other Ministers and other governments over the years again landed on my desk. Add to that all the usual things expected of a V-P – the meetings, the HR issues, the business planning, you name it – and I decided I had enough. There comes a time when you just can’t do it any more, and this seemed to be that time. Over the 2013 Christmas holidays I decided that I would leave the NSLC sometime in the first half of the new year, and I let the President and Board know when I returned to the office in January.

The process of finding a successor took longer than we originally expected, so I ended up extending my departure date twice. The organization did a great job of sending me off, with various receptions, lunches and the like, and I left with good feelings for all and for the job I had done there. When I first arrived at the NSLC in 2001 it was a very different place than the one I left, and I felt proud of much of what we accomplished, especially for our local beer, wine, and spirit producers. That was part of my responsibilities almost from day one, and I always tried to make it easier for them to succeed and to keep barriers out of their way as much as I reasonably could. Almost immediately after leaving, I was asked to add my name to that of a group of consultants who were trying to get a contract from one of those local associations. With considerable reluctance, I agreed, but have to admit I was almost thankful when it didn’t happen. I really didn’t want to work again so soon, and it was not a problem from my point of view not to win the bid.

One of the things I wondered about on the way out the door was just how much I might be asked for help by those who remained. My successor is very capable, but we only overlapped our time for two weeks and there was no way to transfer all the knowledge she would need. But to my surprise, a couple of chats was all that transpired, so I can only assume she is finding the information she needs. Aside from being called back in one other time over the summer to get my picture taken for the Annual Report, and a couple of lunches with those with whom I was most close personally, there has been next to no contact with the organization. But as someone told me recently, it’s probably better than being pestered all the time, and they’re probably right. It’s quite different from still being there and going on vacation. These days, you never totally disconnect when on holidays even if you travel thousands of miles from home. I’ve finally disconnected.

What really shouldn’t be a surprise, but nevertheless is to an extent. was how so many relationships and contacts just ended when the job did. I know most people are busy trying to do their jobs or make money. But any illusions I may have had about a personal connection to many of those folks have quickly been laid to rest. With a few exceptions, there has been no contact at all. Maybe that’s normal, I don’t know. The NSLC has no vehicle for retirees to keep in touch with either each other or the organization. That’s really too bad, though not all that surprising I guess – when you leave, there really is little benefit to the organization for keeping you in the loop. There is a Nova Scotia government retirees association, but that is a very broad-ranging group and they really don’t relate very well to individual places of work. You would think that with Facebook or other forms of electronic communication these days someone would have created something, but if it exists, I haven’t been able to find it. In fact I have far more communication with my former Municipal Affairs colleagues, whom I left in 1998 but who maintain an informal coffee & lunch network, than I do with NSLC folks. Odd.

For the first few months, the quiet was welcomed. I never really expected this, but I think there was a lot more recuperation, recovery, adjustment – call it what you like – required for me than I ever knew I needed. I have absolutely no hard feelings towards the NSLC, because I had a great career there, but it was gruelling work sometimes, with things coming at you all the time and a lot of pressure, so it took its toll. Plus, after my heart surgery and subsequent complications over the winter of 2009/10, I went back to work sooner than I should have, and never really got over that the way I needed to. I think all those things made me require more downtime after I retired than I counted on. For the first few months I was sleeping all the time, and even now, my nightly sleep patterns are very different from what they once were. For years I was getting maybe 6 hours sleep a night if I was lucky. Work would always be on my mind, and I would toss and turn. Now I am consistently getting at least 7 hours, sometimes 8, every night. It’s great.

What really brought the difference in contact home to me was when the Christmas holidays approached. Working at the NSLC at any level, but especially at an executive level, made Christmas a crazy time. The number of things you were invited to and expected to attend was incredible. There were organization-wide events, early in my time there the traditional dinner/dance, then later on, a Sunday brunch that took its place. There was a Head Office lunch, held on the premises. There were also business unit lunches, workgroup gift exchanges, all the usual sort of things most workplaces have. In my case I would also get invited to whatever the Board of Directors and the Executive Committee decided to do each year to mark the holidays. Then there were the invitations from suppliers, which varied depending on where you worked, but always meant anywhere from a few to a great many invitations. It was actually hard to accommodate all of the social things that went on there over the holidays. For me this year, there were virtually none of those. I had a single work-related contact from one non-NSLC person over the holidays this year, plus a lunch invitation from one of my former staff. That was it. It was a strange mix of good and bad – I didn’t always enjoy all of those things when I was required to attend them, but now I felt funny not even being thought of. All part of the adjustment. I guess when you’re out, you’re really out.

People always asked me if I was going to work after I left the NSLC, and I always thought that I would after some time off. Now, I’m not so sure. I’m lucky in that I have a decent pension, live a fairly frugal lifestyle, and have always been a saver. My only dependents are 4 cats. My little house is paid for, and I am getting by just fine. My mindset about work has changed rather dramatically. I have discovered that even things I like doing are a bit of an irritation if they are imposed upon me now. I have always been good at amusing myself and keeping occupied, and now I have made it a bit of an occupation in itself. I like setting my own schedule, going where I want, when I want, and not having to adjust to other people’s schedules. Still, the lure of some extra cash is out there, and I might take up an opportunity or two to earn some if someone wants me to do a bit of consulting on an issue I know something about. But I don’t have to do it, and that’s a nice feeling.

Besides, it would make more sense for me to do that, something I am reasonably good at, rather than doing what I originally thought I would do with my time – working on my house. I have never been good at home improvement projects, have never really enjoyed that kind of work, and have generally not liked the results I have achieved. A close friend is very good at that, and he always said that he knows he can do a better job than most tradespeople he encounters, who are working to finish something as quickly as possible and don’t always care about quality of work. That may or may not be true, but I have botched enough small projects to know that it really isn’t something I like doing because I’m fairly inept at it. So it occurs to me that rather than spending time in retirement doing something that (a) I don’t enjoy and (b) I am not very good at, maybe I should instead do something that is the opposite of that. I always half-seriously threatened to write a book about my time at the NSLC, but that sounds pretty ambitious right now. Time will tell. As it is, I am still enjoying doing not much of anything. Retirement isn’t exactly what I expected it to be, but so far, I can highly recommend it.

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Who Do You Trust? The Broten Report and the Sad State of Provincial Finances

This week, the Province released the Nova Scotia Tax and Regulatory Review report, produced by Laurel Broten following a consultation process of several months. While the consultation was not on the scale of Graham Steele’s “Back to Balance” tour in 2009/10, it did involve a number of meetings around the province and input from a stated 250 individuals or groups. The report makes a long list of recommendations for change in Nova Scotia’s taxation structure, its regulatory framework, and in how government operates.

Unlike virtually any other government-sponsored report I can recall in recent memory, it landed with a dull thud for both the public at large and, it seemed, the government itself. Nobody embraced it except for a handful of business groups like the CFIB and the Halifax Chamber of Commerce. Not only did the opposition parties and their partisan supporters immediately start screaming about its recommendations, but so did many members of the public in reaction to the early media reports that it recommended taxing things like books, diapers, and electricity, reducing taxes on corporations and upper-income earners, and eliminating many of the special-interest exemptions currently built into the tax code.

For a report that the government commissioned themselves, the apparent lack of enthusiasm from that corner seemed rather curious. The immediate reaction in the media probably explains a good part of why they are keeping their distance from it. The news outlets did not find it hard to find people to appear on the news saying they hated the idea of taxing diapers and electricity, or putting up the price of gasoline. It is possible, I suppose, that such a deadpan reaction by government may be a communications strategy to not telegraph their punch, should they actually be planning to implement many of these recommendations. After all, it was probably a longshot for the opposition parties to expect that the Premier would stand up in Question Period and say that he supported higher taxes on families with small children. Only time will tell what changes may be in store.

Setting aside the frothy demands of those whose interests are threatened by these recommendations, do they actually make any sense? It is a very lengthy and complex set of recommendations, so my immediate reaction is somewhat mixed. The sense I get is that there is a lot of material here that absolutely should be taken seriously. But there is also a lot of space devoted to things that I just have to wonder why Ms. Broten even bothered about. Let’s take a quick look at both.

The report is positioned as a follow-up to the Ivany report. Its objective is stated as making recommendations related to changes in taxes and regulations to “sustain economic growth and stabilize the public finances” of Nova Scotia. It borrows from the “now or never” language found in the Ivany report by stating “Never is not an option”, and equates governments running continual operating deficits to individuals buying groceries on credit because they have no money to pay for them. The report makes the very correct point that with our population aging, and our labour force not growing, we will not be able to depend on income taxes to fund government programs to the extent we have done in the past. So it should not be surprising that the report looks to consumption taxes as the way to compensate for this going forward.

Just like the Ivany report, it sounds the alarm bells to justify what it is proposing. To quote: “Nova Scotians have to be willing to embrace the fact, or at least accept, that tough action is required today to achieve financial stability and economic opportunity tomorrow.” That tough action includes big changes to the income tax system, to streamline and simplify it; removing many of the existing HST exemptions (even though, as was pointed out Wednesday by the Premier, as provincial law currently stands, some of these changes would require a referendum – something that is just about guaranteed never to happen); introduction of a carbon tax similar to what exists in British Columbia; elimination and rationalization of most government regulations; a rather vague series of recommendations to make government more efficient and responsive; and a freeze on government spending for at least 5 years.

There is so much in the report that one can only touch on a few of the highlights. The goal of simplifying the income tax system is one that anybody who has ever filed a tax return can probably appreciate. There is a reason why tax accountants and tax-code lawyers do so well, after all. Broten cites an estimate that the cost of compliance with income tax systems across the country equates to 2% of GDP, which is absolutely stunning if true. As the report states:

“Simplifying the tax structure was a goal, or principle, of virtually every tax reform effort undertaken anywhere in recent decades, and this review is no exception. One of the primary reasons for the complication of the tax system can be found in the way tax changes are made. Here in Nova Scotia – and Nova Scotia is not unique – changes are most frequently made to address a specific issue at a given point in time. The change could be for economic, political, compassionate, or any number of reasons. The change is made to a specific, identified tax, with insufficient regard for the whole tax “system.” Over time, new governments, new demands, new social needs, and expectations are met with new tax exemptions, increases, credits, and myriad other tweaks and revisions, each of which piles more complexity into the tax system.”

Aside from tax simplification, the report also takes on the objectives of finding ways to reduce income taxes, thereby reducing disincentives to work while encouraging risk-taking and entrepreneurship; moving to more of a consumption/polluter tax model of revenue generation; reducing the general corporate tax rate to make Nova Scotia more competitive, while increasing the small business tax rate to reduce disincentives to grow; recommending a freeze on total government spending; reducing the regulatory burden; repealing outdated and unnecessary regulations; and moving to a model of the full cost recovery of fees. Quite a mandate.

Perhaps the most eye-opening part of the report for the casual reader is the useful context it provides for the existing state of provincial finances. For those of us who have worked in government for a long time, this is not a surprise, but it delivers the bad news in a very effective manner. In short: Not Good. Some of the key points:

• Operating Deficit: $679 million (this is the excess of what we’ve spent over what we took in during the year)
• Total Spending: $10.7 billion
• Total Revenue: $10 billion (of this, $6.6 billion is generated in NS, the rest is federal transfer payments)
• Net Debt: $15 billion, or over $15,000 per person
• Debt Service : $886 million (paying just the interest on your line of credit, essentially)

On the subject of provincial debt, Broten writes, “Borrowing to build for the future – investing in assets such as roads and bridges, transit infrastructure, and state of the art hospitals and schools – is entirely acceptable. Borrowing to fund programs or interest on past debt must be questioned, managed, and eventually eliminated.”

It’s certainly hard to argue with that. From a big-picture standpoint, it is unconscionable for governments to continue to spend borrowed money and kick the repayment can down the road for future generations to handle. Looking at the numbers, I can almost picture my late father trying to balance the family budget and pay the bills, looking at his bank accounts before uttering his favorite expletive, “Cripes!!”.

This again attempts to reiterate many of the same dire warnings about the state of provincial finances we have heard over the last several years. While those whose interests are threatened can argue against the types of changes included in this report and elsewhere, one must wonder what the alternatives are. The report really sets the stage for the need for Nova Scotians to pay more in taxes and fees, perhaps significantly more, while expecting potentially much less from government in terms of services. We probably will not like that very much. But what are the alternatives? If we continue as we have been, at some point we will not be able to borrow money at rates we can afford. And the prospects of ever being able to repay that debt are dim at best. Short of a federal bail-out and becoming a ward of the Government of Canada, I am at a loss to offer any other alternatives.

To illustrate the challenges associated with government spending, the report provides some context:

“Government program spending has increased at more than twice the pace of inflation over the past 30 years. As set out above, 2013–14 provincial spending was $10.7 billion. By contrast, in 1984, the budget of the province was $2.8 billion. Had spending kept pace with inflation, last year’s total would have been approximately $5 billion rather than double that amount.

This is not to suggest that government spending should track inflation. There are a multitude of other factors involved. The cost of programs, particularly health-care services, has escalated at a rate far in excess of inflation, and Nova Scotians should expect to benefit from health-care advances to the same degree as all Canadians. Health care has steadily increased its share of total program spending, from 25 per cent in the early-to-mid 1980s, to 30 per cent a decade later. By 2000, health care had become about one-third of provincial spending, and today for every dollar the province spends, more than 40 cents go to health.

Obviously, health care is the biggest expense. Others include education (13%); community services (10%); interest on debt (8+%); labour and advanced education, which includes payments to universities and colleges (7%); and transportation and infrastructure (4%). This leaves 18 cents on the dollar for everything else: the justice system and police, natural resources, pension contributions, the environment, business and industry programs, etc.

By category, 37 per cent of total government spending pays salaries and benefits of public servants, including departmental staff, doctors, nurses, teachers, and many others. Grants to municipalities and support for individuals on income assistance, in long-term care, and with other needs take 33 per cent; goods and services required for government operations consume 15 per cent of the budget; professional fees, 3 per cent; and finally, interest on debt, at 8 per cent, rounds out spending.”

The report also makes some interesting points on the sources and uses of funds by the province. It notes that personal income tax represents about 25% of NS revenue, compared to 18% in 1983/84, while corporate income tax makes up about 4% of provincial revenues. Add to that the note in the report regarding Nova Scotia’s income tax rates which are among the highest in the nation, the aging population, and the shrinking labour force, and it is not hard to reach the conclusion that the personal income tax well is running dry. This helps explain in part why the report puts such emphasis on consumption taxes going forward.

As part of the tax simplification argument, the report recommends eliminating many of the existing exemptions from the HST such as printed books, children’s clothing, shoes, and diapers; feminine hygiene products; residential energy; and first-time home purchases. It proposes offsetting these in part by changes to income taxes, presumably targeting those changes to people most in need of help. Naturally the opposition parties have instantly jumped on this as a reason to dismiss the entire report.

The report also recommends other changes to the income tax rules, such as increasing the personal exemption amount, eliminating bracket creep, getting rid of the Volunteer Tax Credit and the Healthy Living Tax Credit, and combining the top two income tax brackets into one. This latter recommendation was also jumped on by critics as giving a tax break to the most wealthy, which it would. Aside from whatever it saves in simplification and whatever it provides in incentives for the wealthiest people to continue to want to live here, I find this one hard to understand. My late former boss at Finance, Gillian Wood, used to tell me that since so many Nova Scotians pay little or nothing in the way of income taxes, promising reductions in that area were pretty much worthless politically. So moving to a model with higher consumption taxes with offsets in income taxes may not have the desired effect.

The report also recommends changes to corporate income tax rates to bring them more in line with others across Canada, and paying for this in part by increasing the small business tax rate from 3% to 8%. Again, the recommendation was jumped on by critics, and in fairness, there seems little rationale found in the report to demonstrate that the small business rate is too low. And like some of the other recommendations, the optics are terrible.

The idea of what the report calls a pollution tax, basically a variation of B.C.’s carbon tax, is intriguing. I have long felt that we need to do something along these lines. Thanks to politicians and the news media, the population is hyper-sensitized to gas, oil, and electricity prices, but we are working at cross-purposes. We complain about the price of gas, but look at the number of supersized pickup trucks that are never used for work that one sees in suburban mall parking lots. We scream about heating oil and electricity prices, but we build outsized new homes that need all that space to be heated, cooled, and illuminated, and filled with electronics to entertain us. We want it both ways, and that just isn’t possible. Again, critics pander to the sensitivity of the citizenry to pan this recommendation, but I think we need it.

Having said all that, along with a number of other changes to the way we levy taxes in Nova Scotia, we come to the most curious part of the report. What does it all add up to? The answer, seemingly, is not much. The report includes a summary table, reproduced below (click to enlarge):


Now, perhaps I’m dense, but why would you do all these politically suicidal and wildly unpopular things for what amounts to zero net gain? The two biggest line items are the first, Freeze Expenditures, which although desirable from a fiscal standpoint seems highly problematic in practical terms; and the last, Priority Transformational Investments/Tax Relief/Debt Reduction, which the report really does not discuss as near as I can tell, and which we do not have any insight into. If it is primarily Debt Reduction, then we have gained something. When I see the phrase “transformational investments” though, I worry that it is just more money frittered away.

There is a large part of the report that discusses things that seem oddly out of place in a report that initially focused on tax reform. The second half of the report talks about Nova Scotia’s regulatory environment, with yet another section relating to government fees. Both of these are interesting to some, no doubt, but strike me as somewhat jarring to find in a report discussing tax policy, and at the same time highly academic and rather naive. Having been involved in the “reinventing government” initiatives here in the 1990s, I can tell you that changing the way government works in a meaningful way is a daunting task. But that is another discussion for another time.

I have to give the government credit for commissioning this report, and kudos to Ms. Broten for putting into the public forum some discussion of the dire situation in which Nova Scotia finds itself. While the many of the recommendations are unpleasant, I think it would be a mistake to dismiss them out of hand. In many ways, it comes down to a question of who one trusts – those who try to get us to believe that the situation really is as bad as the report suggests, or those who are trying to convince us that they have a fundamentally different way to fix our problems. Until I see some evidence that there is another set of solutions, I can only believe that some combination of government spending significantly less while taxing us in a different way that leads to more government revenue is our only way out.

Not Good.

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What I Learned About Politics – and what I learned about Graham Steele

Graham Steele was my Minister from the time he was sworn in after the 2009 election up to the day he resigned in 2012. Of course I was familiar with him prior to that from his time in opposition and especially from his time on the Public Accounts Committee. His style at Public Accounts was like that of a well-researched prosecuting attorney at trial, starting out with some innocuous questions to which he already knew the answers, then leading the witnesses down an ever-narrowing path to where at some point a “Gotcha!” answer occurs. Having sat in the seats across from him there a couple of times I was all too familiar with that approach, although thankfully I was never the direct subject of his questioning. He discusses all of this in his book, “What I Learned About Politics”, which went on sale last week and has from all reports been flying off the shelves.

When I first learned he was writing a book, I was looking forward to reading it. Books that offer a look at almost anything from the inside interest me, and ones that promise to offer a look at the inner workings of politics in Nova Scotia from the inside are quite rare. Having worked with Graham and other members and staff of the NDP government, along with years of exposure to previous governments, I was interested in hearing some of the stories about what went on inside, things about which I had previously heard only speculation or rumor. I was also interested in reading his take on some of the things I had been involved with which had never surfaced publicly.

The book is not huge, being less than 200 pages, and I finished reading it in short order. My initial reaction was an oddly disappointing one. It does not read like the typical memoir, which in fairness, the reader is warned about early on. There is only a scant amount of space given to Steele’s background and life prior to entering politics, which might have helped us better understand his motivations and his reactions to what came later. There are very few stories about other interesting individuals or politicians he encountered during his political career, which one would think would be included in a book like this. I know from having dealt with him that he doesn’t often show a sense of humor while on the job – not necessarily because he doesn’t have one, but because he thinks work times are for serious discussions and not funny stories. As a result the book reads like a cross between a memoir and a textbook, yet doesn’t quite hit the mark for either one. It seems as if it suffered somewhat during the editing process, either to hit a page count limit or to sanitize it, and as a result it reads a bit choppy and doesn’t fully satisfy the reader.

With reflection though, I began to understand some of the reasons why the book is the way it is. Graham Steele is a highly ethical man, as is demonstrated in the account of the MLA expenses affair that is included in the book. Another example was during the time he was Minister responsible for the NSLC, when he refused to attend the annual Winemakers Dinner during the Port of Wines Festival. We urged him to do so, since industry people wanted to meet him, but he felt it was inappropriate and stayed away. He had also told me earlier this year that he would not be including anything in the book that reflected discussions that took place at Cabinet for reasons of Cabinet confidentiality. No doubt that’s where a lot of the most interesting and juicy stories would have come from, and they are out of bounds for him. I would have loved to read his take on his relationship with his first Deputy Minister at Finance, Vicki Harnish, with whom he had a memorable run-in with at Public Accounts in the spring of 2009, just prior to the election. Knowing Vicki, I’m sure they must have had some interesting one-on-one discussions after he became Minister. But again, I can only assume he felt those were personal and not for publication. Too bad for us.

As the book demonstrates, Steele is not the typical politician. The glad-handing and easy manner one usually encounters with politicians does not come naturally to him. He is a brilliant man, of course, does not suffer fools gladly, and unfortunately at times he lets that show. He sometimes can come across as arrogant and needing to prove that he’s the smartest guy in the room. After a fairly short time I learned that he generally was – he was a Rhodes Scholar after all – so I didn’t let that trait bother me. But I could also see that for others with bigger egos than I had, that would be a problem. My sense was that he had to work really hard to do many of the things that natural politicians do without a second thought. His natural inclination wasn’t that of being warm and fuzzy, glad-handing and working a crowd. It just isn’t him. He is demanding and has high expectations of the people who work for him, and if you didn’t measure up, he didn’t hesitate to let you know that. Without breaking any confidences, I know that a number of individuals at Finance really did not care for him because of that.

Once we began to deal with each other, I came to quite enjoy him. Because he was by far the most intelligent Minister I ever worked for, he understood pretty much everything you put in front of him right away. You didn’t have to try to put things in terms he could understand because he picked up on things very quickly regardless of what it was. I also learned not to tell or show him anything you would later not want him to remember, because he had a memory like an elephant and it would come back to haunt you. We came to develop an excellent working relationship, because, I think, he trusted that I would be straight with him on whatever he asked me, and I tried to respond quickly and accurately on whatever he wanted from me.

One point I recall where our relationship started to develop was in October of 2009 during Estimates. The Estimates debate is an arcane process where Ministers appear in front of a committee of MLAs to explain and defend the budgets for all the areas for which they are responsible. It gets to the core of how our system of government is supposed to work, with Ministerial responsibility and accountability for their portfolios. Many years ago, when government was much smaller and less complex, Ministers probably had much more knowledge of what went on in their departments and how money was spent. Today, with government in Nova Scotia having a budget of over $9 billion and its operations reaching far into the lives of most people, the ability of a Minister to speak intelligently to everything that goes on is necessarily limited.

But the Estimates process hasn’t really changed, so what it has become is a game where opposition MLAs try to make a Minister, especially a new Minister, look bad by asking questions to which he does not have an answer. It is almost like a public game of Trivial Pursuit. Ministers have the resources of staff available to help them, and what happens is that a tremendous amount of effort goes on beforehand as staff members prepare massive binders of charts, tables, graphs and briefing notes to cover any possible question that might get asked. The way it works is that a very specific factual question gets asked, the Minister generally ad-libs for a bit while staffers frantically search through their binders for the answer, which they then slide in front of the Minister to incorporate in the response and finally stop the ad-libbing. From an objective view it is a very costly and wasteful process, but it does provide a degree of transparency and accountability.

In October of 2009, Steele had been Minister for just 3 months, so at Estimates he was accompanied by an army of staff not just from Finance but also from the other areas for which he was responsible, including myself representing NSLC. Like all my colleagues there, I had my trivia binder which I had built up over the years and had updated with our latest financials, briefing notes and stats. NSLC was always a popular topic at Estimates, so I had learned to never be surprised by anything that was asked, and had brought along all sorts of detail in my binder.

The process had dragged along for several hours, with most of the questioning being done by Leo Glavine for the Liberals and Chris D’Entremont for the Tories. Being on the receiving end of questioning must have been new for Steele at that point, but he handled things generally pretty well, his quick grasp of facts being a huge advantage, with only a few instances where he let himself sound exasperated at the question or condescending in his response. But this was an evening session, we had all been there for hours, and as 8:00PM approached we all wanted to go home.

Chris D’Entremont, though, was determined to use up all of his allotted time, and so was asking long, rambling questions with seemingly little point. The Chair even had to interrupt his ramble at one point to inquire if he actually had a question to ask. Eventually that led to this exchange, as recorded in Hansard:

MR. D’ENTREMONT: Mr. Chairman, I know that community wouldn’t be beyond using rowboats either if that meant getting to the nearest liquor store (Laughter) – in complete jest. It would be very nice to maybe move that issue forward, as I know it’s been a concern of the gentleman for some time now.

Just changing a little bit, to maybe go back to wine because this seems to be where I’ve matured to at this point in my life – and at some point I guess I’m going to have to go to scotch or whiskey, like Dad. But wine is where it is right now, and I was wondering where the offerings were coming from and, because of my attachment to French wine, I was wondering what are our offerings in French wine and then, maybe just generally, where our wines are coming from.

Just by chance, I had in my binder a page with all of our wine sales stats by country of origin. I had added it just on a hunch, as nobody had ever asked for that before. But I saw it presented one day shortly before in a meeting, and kept a copy just for this occasion. I pulled it out of the binder and slid it in front of Graham. He looked at it, saw what it was, looked at me, and smiled before giving this answer, sounding about as playful as I would ever hear him:

MR. STEELE: The staff continue to amaze me – no matter what the question is they pull out a chart with an amazing amount of information. I happen to have in front of me the precise figures the member is looking for. Who knew?

It’s getting late. I could do this in quiz form, but maybe I won’t. Where would you think that the highest volume of wine comes from? It is not where you think it is – the highest volume of wine sold in Nova Scotia, by far, is Canadian wine.

MR. CHAIRMAN: The chairman will not allow this to turn into a game show. (Laughter)

MR. STEELE: Okay, being serious for a second here. So the number-one wine, by far, is Canadian wine. I’m doing the math in my head – it is done in nine-litre units, but of course if you have twelve 750-millilitre bottles, that equals nine litres. So these are done in cases. The current year: 122,255 cases of Canadian wine in the five months to date; far behind that would be Australian wine, 58,000 cases; quite far behind that would be American wine at 38,000 cases; Italian wine at 32,000; Chilean at 22,000; French, 17,000; and South African, 10,000.

The others are a very, very small amount – for example, one of the local wines that I purchase myself, but is available in very small amounts would be Lebanese wine – Croatian wine and New Zealand wine. And the other one that I should mention as well, and I think we all can be very proud of this, is 24,236 cases of Nova Scotia wine – and that represents a 22 per cent increase over the same period last year.

Graham scored a point, Chris was deflated, and I felt golden. He would tell me later that he thought I loved the Estimates process, although that really wasn’t true. It was a responsibility I had, and I just wanted to do a good job at it. In later years, Graham began to handle the Estimates without staff present, probably because he thought it wasteful of a lot of time and effort and that he could handle anything asked of him. In retrospect, I think it partly was a reflection of his disillusionment with the entire system at that point.

As his time as our Minister went on, he was very engaged in the hot issues of the day related to NSLC. He was the point man on the entire U-Vint business, and was the one who insisted that we proceed in the way that things played out, explaining that allowing them to operate under a regulatory regime would be foolish since some operators had already demonstrated their contempt for the law as it was. The gory details of the U-Vint affair are far too detailed to explore here and should be the subject of a future entry, but make no mistake, the position taken to prosecute was a government position and one that was led by Steele, and not without some difficulty.

But as was evidenced there and on other issues, he began to have some challenges getting things approved. The rumors about him and the “boys in the Premier’s Office” being on the outs were soon no longer rumors, and he became very sensitive to them injecting themselves into what he thought was his business as Minister. He recounts some of this in the book and I know that I was once the recipient of a very pointed directive from him in a meeting about how to respond when they contacted us. What he seemed not to fully understand was the reaction of the bureaucracy any time the Premier’s Office calls on anything – you respond, immediately, and ask questions later. That’s just the way things work, because they have the ultimate power, and as a staff member you have to do what they ask. The bureaucracy presumes that the Premier’s Office and Ministers are all on the same page. His problems with that office caused some difficulty for staff, and I learned to always immediately let him know whenever they called.

His “12 Rules of Politics” are no secret to anyone who has been involved in government for any length of time. This is probably the first time they have been put down on paper, though, and he deserves credit for doing that. They have gotten a lot of attention from columnists and reporters in their assessment of the book. But for me, the more interesting list is his 10 “Rules of Finance”, which have gotten surprisingly little attention. I think these are far more important, maybe because I once worked at Finance and later at Priorities and Planning, now Treasury Board, and dealt with those issues during that time. That set of rules really gets to what we struggle with in government, day in and day out. Since the 1980s, we have not had enough money to pay for the amount of government we seem to want. The result is that politicians continue to expand the role of government using both higher taxes and, more often, increasing debt.

But as he points out, a program, once established, becomes very difficult to eliminate. There is always a constituency that will kick up a fuss, get in the media, and declare that the end of their world is nigh if this program goes away. The opposition parties will use the Rules of Politics to their advantage, and most of the time, the program stays. During my time at Priorities and Planning, I was involved in the program review that the Hamm government undertook in 2000, and our favorite example then was the School Milk Program. While on the surface it was an admirable program, one that provides a carton of milk daily to kids of a certain age in schools, what we discovered was that it was the outcome of lobbying by the dairy interests, and that the number of kids who actually needed the milk as a dietary necessity due to the financial circumstances at home was very small. But there was no way it could be eliminated or changed to something more effective. It would have been political suicide. That lesson was learned well by the Hamm government and as Steele notes in the book, only a tiny number of programs (he says 3, my memory is that it was slightly higher) were eliminated.

In the end, the book is a bit of a sad story. I think Graham probably knew early on while still in opposition that it would not end well for him because he was so different from those around him in the House. But perhaps he had hopes that things would be different once the NDP formed a government. The difficulties and frustrations he had with his leader are really no different than those people at high levels in any corporate organization experience with their CEOs – some people are favored over others, the CEO doesn’t always behave the way you would hope, and sometimes instead of working as a team you have a bunch of people all pulling in different directions. I suspect that kind of behavior is more common than the ideal.

I was sad when he resigned as Minister, and I sent him a note telling him that I thought he was the best Minister I had ever worked under. I meant that then and still do. If you’re interested in politics, especially Nova Scotia politics, I recommend the book. But if you’re a political junkie looking for a bunch of juicy stories, it’s a bit like being invited to dinner at a fine restaurant and being escorted out after the appetizer course. A lot of the most enjoyable parts aren’t being served.

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