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

  1. Dan O'Connor says:

    Hi Greg. Thanks to Tim Bousquet, I learned today that you have this blog. Interesting, and I hope fulfilling. I share many of the same views about Graham’s book.
    Dan O’Connor


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