Most of us have not sat in the backrooms of politics, the places where decisions are really made. But today’s guest on the Govern Yourself Accordingly podcast has. He’s done the rest of us a favour – especially those of us who try to have an impact on the decisions being made in our communities, states, provinces, and countries.

Graham Steele is the former finance minister for the Canadian province of Nova Scotia. In his new book, The Effective Citizen: How to Make Politicians work for you, he has drawn a road-map of the politician’s brain. He’s codified the thought-patterns, the behaviour, and the patterns of speech that even the best of our politicians use as crutches.

He’s done this so that we (as citizens) can understand them. Beyond that, he’s taken it a step further and mapped out how citizens can use that information to be more effective at advocacy to influence policy change. He explores the big picture: how patient and persistent advocacy can have a major impact, but he also talks about the granular: like how to follow-up on a meeting with a decision maker so they’re more likely to do what they told you they’d do.

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Episode Transcript: The Effective Citizen with Graham Steele

You’re listening to episode number three of the Govern Yourself Accordingly podcast, the podcast for engaged citizens and public leaders who want to lead change through politics with their integrity intact.

[Music begins]

Most of us probably have not sat in the backrooms of politics, the places where decisions are really made.

But today’s guest on the Govern Yourself Accordingly podcast has. And he’s done the rest of us a favour especially those of us who try to have an impact on the decisions being made in our communities, states, provinces and countries.

Graham Steele is the former finance minister for the Canadian province of Nova Scotia.

In his new book, The Effective Citizen, he has drawn a road-map of the politician’s brain.

He’s codified the thought-patterns, the behaviour, and the patterns of speech that even the best of our politicians use as crutches.

He’s done this so that we (as citizens) can understand them.

Beyond that, he’s taken it a step further and mapped out how citizens can use that information to be more effective at advocacy to influence policy change.

He explores the big picture: how patient and persistent advocacy can have a major impact, but he also talks about the granular: like how to follow-up on a meeting with a decision maker so they’re more likely to do what they told you they’d do.

Graham: … the most productive relationships between citizens and politicians are those where these things can be said out loud… To sit down with a politician as an equal. And it starts with sitting down with a politician.

Graham Steele was in politics for 15 years, three as a political staffer, 12 as an elected official and three of those were as finance minister. Before politics he was a Rhodes Scholarship recipient and worked for a decade as a lawyer.

He now teaches business law at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

[Music fades out]


Graham Steele: My first book was called What I Learned About Politics, and what I wanted to do in that book was tell the story about what it’s like as somebody getting into politics — what they experienced, what they see what they feel, and particularly it was based on this idea that most government decision-making doesn’t happen in the assembly. It happens in closed rooms in office buildings around the assembly, whether that’s in Halifax or Ottawa or capitals cross the country or around the world, the real decision-making is made behind closed doors.

I wanted to lift the curtain, open the window, whatever metaphor you want to use, about that. So that was the first book, and this one is a little bit different. This is not so much going into the back rooms of decision-making but looking right inside the politician’s brain. The basis for it was that when I was a minister I would meet with all kinds of people, all kinds of citizens, all kinds of interest groups, big and small, rich, and just running by the skin of their teeth. What struck me was how few people really understood what was going on in politics.

They couldn’t be effective if they didn’t understand what was going through the mind of the person on the other side of the table, and that happened to be me.

So this book is what I considered to be the last piece of unfinished business from my time in politics, and that is to say to citizens “this is what you need to know to be effective. This is what’s going on inside that politician’s head sitting across the table from you.” So that’s the first half of the book — what’s going on inside the politician’s head — and the other one is, “What do you do with that? How do you get things done with that knowledge?”

Mark Coffin: So let’s start with that first piece – what is going on inside of a politician’s head. What are the things that we’re obviously missing, or that the majority of people who are trying to make change are missing?

Graham Steele: Well part one of the book, which is the first half the book, has three chapters in it and it is very simply how politicians think, how politicians behave, and how politicians speak. If you want something from a politician, if you want to partner with a politician to get things done, it’s best to think of it as a kind of negotiation — and it’s a two-level negotiation. First of all you’re trying to get your share of scarce government resources. There’s only a limited pot of money and lots and lots of demands on it, so you’re trying to make a claim on that pot of money. But then the other dimension is laying a claim on the politician’s time and attention, and if you’re going to do that, if you’re going to play on that level of negotiation, you have to know what the politician’s environment is like.

Like any negotiation, you need to know what is the bargaining position of the person on the other side of the table. You know where you’re coming from, you know what’s going on in your side, but you’re not gonna get anywhere in negotiation if you don’t know what’s going on, on the other side. That is the main thing that I saw missing from the citizens and lobby groups who wanted to meet with me.


They didn’t show much interest in knowing what my environment was like, what were the forces working on me, what was I thinking about as they sat across the table from me. That’s what I’m trying to do in the book. I’m trying to say to people, “If you want to be an effective citizen you have to stop thinking about yourself, or at least not let that be the only thing you’re thinking, and think about how do I turn this politician on the other side of the table into a partner on the same side of the table?”

Mark Coffin: In the book you categorized the kind of people you would get, and there’s four of them: a rung, a hurdle, a nettle or a chore. I wonder if you can talk a bit about what each of those mean. I’m guessing most politicians wouldn’t actually use those terms but are probably familiar with the concept.

Graham Steele: That’s exactly right. I’m not saying that politicians literally have a list, but what I’m saying is that in effect they’re doing this; when you’re a politician and you’re meeting with a group, you size them up pretty quickly. You say [to yourself] can they help me politically? Can they hurt me politically? These categories are the different permutations and combinations of that.

For example, a rung is somebody that can’t hurt me politically, but could help me. It’s a rung on my ladder to success. I can work with them as long as it’s working to my benefit. But as soon as it starts appearing a little bit difficult, I can drop them without worrying about the electoral effect that it has on me.

A chore is somebody who can’t really hurt or help you politically, but they come to you with a request and you do it out of a sense of duty. If you have time and if there’s not something better to do, it’s kind of inherent in the word ‘chore’ -– you do it,  but you don’t take any great delight in it.

A nettle is somebody who has no political benefit. All they can do is hurt you. You dislike grasping a nettle. You don’t do it if you don’t have to, and you do everything you can to push them away. Close the file, hand it on to somebody else, just make them go away, because there is no electoral reward.

Mark Coffin: It’s lose-lose.

Graham Steele: Yes, so every minute you spend with them is a wasted minute.

And a hurdle is actually the best place to be. Those are people that can help or hurt you politically, so you’ve got to make sure that you treat them carefully. Think of a runner going down the track, and a hurdle is raised. You’ve got to run you’ve also got to get over the hurdle. You can’t trip over the hurdle if you want to get to the finish line. The basic idea is that you categorize people because you’ve got to prioritize, as a politician, where you’re spending your time and money. And let’s never forget that the fundamental concern of a politician at all times every day is, how does this help me get reelected?

Mark Coffin: Speaking of hurdles, I think that is a bit of a hurdle for the average citizen to get over. You spend a lot of time talking about the psychology of it, and I think the average citizen, or the average person at the table, wants to think that it’s something other than the drive to get reelected that is going to motivate the politicians.

Graham Steele: Yes I don’t really get that, because a lot of people say, it shouldn’t be that way. They want their politicians to be more noble, more angelic, and I don’t understand it. If you want to be an effective citizen, if you want to get things done, don’t you have to deal with your politicians the way they are? Even though, in an ideal world, maybe everything would be done selflessly with no thought about future electoral consequences, that is not the world of democratic politics. don’t think it ever has been, and there’s no prospect that it will be. So let’s deal with politicians as they are. That’s what the book is about, what’s actually going through a politician’s mind and how to work with that, rather than decrying the fact that they’re not a little bit more noble and angelic in the way they go about their business.


Politicians are motivated by a lot of things, but first and foremost every day, I’m telling ya this, is “what do I need to do to get reelected?” That’s just a fact. That’s what’s going through their head.

Mark Coffin: A fact that they never really admit to generally in office.

Graham Steele: Not so baldly, not not so openly, but it’s there. I was in politics for 15 years. Three years as a staffer, 12 years in in elected office. During that time I met politicians. a lot of politicians, from across the country and around the world because of some democratic development work that I’ve done all over the place. I’m telling you, if this is what’s going through the minds of a democratic politician. There’s no use saying, ‘well that shouldn’t be what’s going through their mind’ or ‘I wish they were more noble.’ That’s what’s on their minds, so if you want to be an effective citizen you have to figure out how to deal with it.

Mark Coffin: You’re suggesting that the best place to be is to be a hurdle – something that the politician cannot avoid working with, or getting over. Do you have some examples in mind, of movements for change that have been strong hurdles?

Graham Steele:  There’s an example I give in the book, and I actually use the name. In Nova Scotia. we have an organization called the Ecology Action Center. They’ve been around since 1971. They’re an essentially an environmental lobby group, and they’re really good at what they do. They’re really knowledgeable of what they do, and they have shown themselves over the years to be ready to work with any government that’s willing to talk to them.

They’ve also established themselves as go-to people for the media. So no matter what the environmental issue is, you know that the the Ecology Action Center is going to be asked for their opinion. So they may as well be happy, if you can make them happy. You want to make sure that they understand what you’re doing as government, and that you understand where they’re coming from. They can also hurt you, because if you do things that surprise them or that they think are bad policy, they will say so. They will say it publicly, and say it often. They will disseminate it to their rather large membership base, and as I said, they’re the go-to people for the media. They can help you if they’re on-side with you, they can hurt you if they’re not. They’re the classic hurdle.

Every jurisdiction has organizations like that. but that’s not something that just happened. They earned it over a long period of time. That’s one of the messages in my book. If citizens want to be effective, there’s work that they have to do. There’s no magic bullet, no silver bullet, no magic wand they can wave to make things go their way instantly. There’s some work that has to be put in. I make some suggestions in the book about the kind of work that needs to be done.

Mark Coffin: Can you talk a bit more about that? What would that look like for a fledgling organization, or a fledgling advocate that’s getting their feet wet?

Graham Steele: There are lots of ideas in the book. The second part of the book is, now that we know what’s going on inside the politician’s brain, what do we do with that? There are all kinds of suggestions in the second half of the book, but the one I want to focus on in answer to your question is to build public support. Remember, I said politicians are always thinking about the next election campaign, and elections are about votes. Politicians become very savvy very quickly about votes, and what [counts as] a vote-moving issue. How many people are so motivated by this issue that they’ll actually change their vote, potentially? Honestly, there aren’t that many issues which change people’s votes. Much less, issues that change a lot of people’s votes.

So the most fundamental thing that an effective citizen or organization needs to do is build public support. That’s easy to say and really hard to do. You can’t fake it. People try to fake it, claiming for example,  that they represent many more people than they actually do, or that their members have a depth of feeling about an issue that they don’t. The thing you need to realize is that politicians become very adept at gauging public opinion. So if you’re sitting in [front of] a politician claiming public support that you don’t have, they know it. They know it, and then you lose credibility with them because they know that you don’t have the public support that you’re claiming.


You’ve got to build it. And it’’s not just building it that’s difficult, it’s sustaining it over a long period of time. Sometimes there’s a hot issue and everybody’s all worked up about it, but politicians – especially the more experienced ones – learn that the heat can go out of an issue really quickly. They’ll just wait you out. Even though you may think you have a lot of public support, maybe you have it today, but will you still have it tomorrow? Will you still have it next week? People move on, and politicians know that. Building and sustaining public support in a way that the politician knows they’re going to have to deal with it in the run-up to the next election, that’s the way to be the most effective.

Mark Coffin: I hear what you’re saying when it’s about being effective, and I guess the implication of that is that the most effective citizens are the ones that can afford to or are willing to consider the needs and interests of the politician seeking re-election. And I wonder if it is fair to say that it is the responsibility of citizens, particularly when it comes to questions of justice, and questions of equity amongst groups that are already marginalized, already impoverished, already discriminated against. Is it their responsibility to consider the politician’s need for re-election, and when I was reading the book, I was holding the question, had you considered how that might land with folks from communities that are in those circumstances?

Graham Steele: I don’t think there are groups or issues to whom these thoughts and techniques in the book don’t apply. In fact it’s one of the weaknesses that groups encounter in trying to be effective; it’s hard work, and they give themselves some reason why they don’t actually have to do it. Sometimes I just want to reach out and shake them and say, ‘no, you have to do the work!’ You are in a complicated negotiation with a politician about the allocation of public resources, and the allocation of the politicians time, it is two-level chess. It’s very difficult. You must never forget that no politician has to deal with you if they don’t want to.

The fundamental job of an elected official is to sit in the parliament, sit in the assembly, and vote on laws and budgets. That’s the one thing that nobody else can do. Every other thing that a politician does can be done by somebody else, but not that. Nobody else is allowed in their seat. They don’t have to do anything else if they don’t want to, there is no job description for a politician. There’s nothing that say, ‘you must do this, you must do this, you must do this…’ There’s nothing. You are negotiating with them for their time and attention, but here’s what I would add to what I said earlier. The most fundamental thing that effective citizens need to do is build real and lasting public support, which is not easy, and politicians within that context tell a story to themselves about who they are and what they’re doing. You need to understand that story. They’re in the driver’s seat, they can walk away from the table any time they want to. They don’t have to deal with you.

So what you want to do is understand their story. You want to understand who they tell themselves they are, and what they’re all about. And absolutely,  politicians are good, community minded, gregarious people. They got into politics for a reason, although often it’s a very vague reason. You know, they wanted to make a difference, or they wanted to do something and so you need to understand what is it they’re telling themselves. And sometimes that is about fairness, or justice, or making their community better.

And so the most effective citizens are the ones who will understand that story, and then weave the two stories together. Take the the citizen’s or organization’s storey – what it is they’re trying to accomplish – and weave it together with the politician’s story, so the politician becomes a partner rather than an obstacle that you have to get through.

So metaphorically, think of it as bringing the politician from being across the table, to sitting beside you saying, ‘okay, how are we going to accomplish this together.’ Because, at the end of the day, politicians want to go home and look at their family in the eye and say, ‘I did something good today.’ And you want to be that good thing they did, something they’re proud of, something they’re willing to put their time and attention into because remember – for any given politician on any given day there are a thousand other things they could be doing so you got to give them a reason to spend their time on your issue.


Mark Coffin:  I imagine that interweaving the two stories – that’s a helpful turn of phrase – and I think it’s probably something that most people who are on the citizen side of the table may have some challenges with having their story appropriated.

And, I think because they’re not in the mix with that electoral incentive that the politician has – what I have seen is that the people on the citizen’s side of the table are generally not getting paid for the work they’re doing, generally putting a lot of sweat in, and it’s their passion area. So if there’s one area that they’re going to be an idealist on it’s this issue that they’re bringing to the politician. So in that respect I anticipate [many citizens would] as would I have some hesitation around allowing the story that me or the group I’m working with is trying to get out there to be interwoven with someone’s story who has a clear self-interest.

Graham Steele:  And yet they’re the decision-maker or they have access to the decision-makers. So, like it or not you got to find a way to work with them. So you’ve reminded me of something else that I talked about in the book and that is this whole issue of credit credit. Credit and it’s ugly a sibling, blame. But, let’s leave blame aside and talk about credit for now. Now, the coin of politics is credit: who gets credit for doing things. And powerful citizens are not afraid to let other people take credit. It is amazing what can be accomplished if it doesn’t matter who gets credit. Now, it’s just the nature of politics, of electoral politics, where the politician is always thinking about next election it’s quite unlikely that they’re going to do something and work on something and take no credit for.

Look, it happens, but it’s not the nature of the political business, and often they will take too much credit or take credit for things that they didn’t actually do, and yet some really effective citizens are okay with that. Because really effective citizens – the only thing that matters to them is getting the thing done, whatever the objective is, whatever the organization exists for, or whatever the citizen’s passion is. What matters most is getting the thing done but at the same time, an effective citizen knows that credit is something that also can be negotiated and you don’t hand it out for nothing. It’s part of the deal with the politician is ‘what kind of credit are they gonna get’ in return for being a partner that helps get things done.

Mark Coffin: I mean that sounds like – for the average person on the citizen side of the table – that sounds like it’s probably an awkward or difficult conversation. How does that sound if you’re you’re trying to negotiate credit.

Graham Steele: In the book, I talk about – in a number of different places – I talk about people getting over their fear of talking to their politician about this kind of stuff. This is what’s going on in the politician’s head and the most productive relationships between citizens and politicians are those where these things can be said out loud and they can be put on the table. They need to be put on the table because other otherwise you’re giving too much advantage to politicians.

Really part of the point of the book is is to arm citizens with the knowledge they need to sit down at the table with a politician as an equal and it starts with sitting down with a politician!

I tell the story in the book about when I was a politician sitting in my constituency office a phone would ring and at least half the time people would start the conversation by saying to me, “Oh, I know you’re so busy.” And I loved it when they did that because that handed the power to me, right?

And people were weakening themselves right from the beginning by saying it – in effect saying ‘Okay you will now control how this conversation goes.” Because without you even saying anything I’ve acknowledged that you’re really, really, really busy and that you can cut the conversation short. You’re handing control to the politicians. So I say, “Okay. Stop. Don’t do that. Their job is to talk to citizens.  That’s what they’re there for, and so don’t apologize, don’t explain, just pick up the phone, call them and say, ‘Okay, here’s here’s what I’m calling about.’”


And not only that but another tip that I give in the in the book is that my experience was that most citizens communicate with their politicians by email. It’s quick, it’s easy –

Mark Coffin: It’s not a scary

Graham Steele: Yeah, but it helps you maintain an emotional distance.  You’re not actually looking the person in the eye. And who does that give an advantage to? Not the citizen. It gives the advantage to the politician, and it’s far more effective to pick up the phone and call them, or even better go into the office and meet with them. Or – even better than that invite them to come to your home or your office. As I say in the book all this stuff about where a meeting is held, how long it lasts, who’s there in the room – that’s all part of the negotiation and you need to not hand the power over to the politicians.

Mark Coffin: And it really does seem like there’s sort of – you do talk through it in detail in the book kind – every little aspect of your outreach, or your invitation or whatever it might be – plays into the power transactions between you and the and the politician.

Graham Steele: Right, that’s exactly right and also you need to know where the politician is coming from. For example, let’s suppose you arrange a meeting with a politician – you and your local community group you arrange meeting with a politician – you’re going to meet with them for half an hour in their constituency office on such-and-such a day. All right. What was a politician doing before you got there? What’s the politician gonna do after you leave? You need to know that.  You need to know their context. You need to know their environment, like what are they doing?

And so in the book, I talk about what does politician do all day? I mean heaven knows that our elected assemblies don’t sit that often and the Canadian federal parliament sits six months a year tops. The provincial legislature typically will sit a grand total adding up all the different sessions for two or three months out of the year. What does a politician do the rest of the time?

You need to know that in order to understand all the all the ways of not taking advantage of politicians but at the very least being on a level playing field with them. Effective citizens want to know this stuff so that they can enter into that negotiation on a level playing field. When I was writing the book there’s a whole section that’s now gone but it was long and rather plodding but it was just basic civics.

Mark Coffin: that’s the section I always want to read when I hear about it.

Graham Steele: I know, the one that got chopped. But citizens, if you want to be effective you have to know the basics. About how does an assembly work, how does a political party work, what are the political parties, and that basic information. You can’t not know that stuff and talk to a politician and expect to be talking on on a level playing field, which is where you need to be if you have if you want to have any hope of being effective.

Mark Coffin: I’m curious about the the end of the meeting with the politician or the point when it comes time to make an ask. And in the book you talk about some of the the non-conclusive ways that these sort of meetings can end and some of the really specific things you can ask for as a person on the citizen side of the table. From what it sounded like these aren’t necessarily the things that everybody asks when they come to the table and really kind of bind the politician to your group and your issue. Can you talk about what some of those kind of specifics might be?

Graham Steele: I like that expression “The Ask.” You’d be surprised at how many citizens group met with me and either never did make an ask or the ask was remarkably vague. You gotta pin the politician down. You have to. And, remember that politicians are very skilled at using words. That’s why there’s a whole chapter devoted to how politicians speak. So I go through all the different techniques that politicians have of saying pretty things without committing to do anything. And one of the fundamental messages in the book is that words don’t matter. The only thing that matters is actions. And when all the smoke and dust clears away what has the politician done is the only thing that ought to count. Not saying, ‘Well I’m really on your side but I can’t do anything,’ or ‘I really support what you’re trying to do, I know I voted against it in the legislature but that’s only because of the pressure I’m under from my leader but you know I’m really really support what you’re doing, even though I voted against you.’


None of that counts. The only thing that counts is what’s being done. So at the end of a meeting with a politician both sides – and especially the citizen side –  should leave the room with a very clear idea of who is going to do what.  and when and I make suggestions, very practical suggestions like taking notes in the meeting. Make a recording of the meeting. Although that’s –  

Mark Coffin: let’s talk about that,  that’s controversial

Graham Steele: Let’s come back to that. But write to the politician after the meeting, based on your notes and say, ‘Okay, here’s what we talked about. If there’s anything that you disagree with in in my notes – these are my notes! If this in the inaccurate tell me what it is.’ Then you have a record who’s supposed to do what when, and then you follow up so that there’s some accountability.

And you know politicians will be taken aback because they’re not used to being held accountable. They’re not used to having sort of set targets and set deadlines because they love to escape meetings without any of those things, right?

Mark Coffin: As do I. To be fair but most people, I imagine, go to meetings not hoping they’re getting more work

Graham Steele: Right, but without that the citizen can’t know that they’re going to be effective – and so then you follow up. Okay, you say to the politician you say ‘At the last meeting you said you were gonna do this, did you do this?’

Politician says ‘Well, yeah I had some conversations’

‘Do you have evidence of those conversations? Do they have letters you can show us?’

Anyway I go into all that in the book, but it’s to be as specific as possible. It’s just about accountability and remembering that in some very real sense, the politician works for you. And you’re looking for the same kind of accountability that you would expect from an employee who was given a task.

Mark Coffin:  Let’s talk about the recording.

Graham Steele:  Okay.

Mark Coffin: Why would you suggest that people record these meetings? Wouldn’t that ultimately hurt the relationship?

Graham Steele: Facetiously, I would say because politicians hate recordings. One of the rhetorical techniques that politicians learn is vagueness and ambiguity: who promised what, exactly when to nod, ‘I didn’t I didn’t say that,’ ‘‘I didn’t promise that.’

And often these days, Mark, it’s amazing how many politicians get into trouble because there is a recording of a meeting and they deny having said something. Where they say something that they really wish they hadn’t. And these days everybody’s walking around with a smartphone which is a camera, and a recording device, and I just say the citizens, ‘Use it! Use it!”

Ambiguity and vagueness is part of the politician’s toolkit, and it’s to their advantage, and if you have detailed notes, or a recording then the politician can’t deny that that’s what happened and what was said.

And, yeah there’s some politicians who will be taken aback by that, but again that’s one of the techniques they say,  ‘No, no, you can’t record this,’ or like ‘why are you doing that?’ Because Canadians tend to be very polite and if the politician says ‘No, no, I I don’t want you to record this.’ So yeah yeah, fine.

But – but, remember that’s all to the politician’s advantage so this is part of the negotiation. You have a recording device in your pocket, why would you not use it?

Mark Coffin:  And you make the point in the book that as long as one person in the room knows that it’s being recorded it’s not illegal

Graham Steele: Yeah, yeah it’s not illegal or anything like that. It’s just, it will take the politician aback because they’re not used to being held accountable in quite that way. And they may in fact refuse to have a meeting that’s recorded, and it’s something that a smart citizen will evaluate in the circumstances.

Mark Coffin: ERight, what are the risks and benefits

Graham Steele: If the politician doesn’t want it recorded, are they really our friend? Are they really on our side? What are they afraid of? That kind of thing it’s

But it’s politicians who know what’s to their advantage, and what I’m doing in my book is trying to give citizens a toolkit to level that playing field.

Mark Coffin:  So there are so many things that are broken and dysfunctional about politics, about the current system, about the current political culture and you’ve written about those things. And you’ve also written that you’re not professing to have any solution, or a special prescription to solving that problem.

But my question is this: if people follow your advice if all of us step up and be more effective citizens within a broken system and become more effective – obviously the immediate effect is that we’re more effective – but is there a risk of the aggregate effect that by participating effectively in a broken system that we potentially make it worse?


Graham Steele:  I never thought of it that way before. You’re right in the sense that my book sort of takes the system as a given. Or, the way I would put it is that it takes a political culture as a given it’s big and strong and deep and it’s been around for a long time and it’s not gonna change anytime soon. So what I’m writing about in the book isn’t going to lead to that kind of systemic change like proportional representation, or you know that kind of system change, but that’s okay other people can work on that. But, what I think is important is for people to say, ‘The system is what it is.’ And it doesn’t get you anywhere to rail against it and say, ‘Well it shouldn’t be that way, so we’re all gonna act as if it’s not that way, because politicians ought to be more angelic therefore we won’t treat them as they actually are.’

It says, ‘Look, whether you like it or not this is what politics is, so let’s figure out how to work with it.’

Mark Coffin: So, my last question is –  you made a lot of really persuasive arguments about how to be effective and get results as an advocate and I imagine many people will hear that and take them kindly. But a piece of resistance I often hear when we’re talking about helping people get more engaged in politics is that they’re fearful of going too far in because their integrity might be compromised, they might have to compromise their own values.

Do you have a suggestion or two for how citizens and advocates can be more effective while keeping their integrity intact?

Graham Steele: Well, one thing that I can say about many citizens that I’ve come across over the years who are singularly ineffective is that they are absolutely uncompromising. They treat politics as if it’s a matter of absolutes. You know, ‘do it this way’ or ‘you’re wrong, you’re bad, you’re stupid’ all the kind of stuff we say about politicians but people need to understand that politics, democratic politics fundamentally is about compromise.

There are competing interests in our society there are competing values. Compromise is not a dirty word. Taking half a loaf is not a bad thing if you can’t get the whole loaf. I do say in the book, ‘take the half a loaf when it’s being offered, and go back and get the rest one slice at a time.’ Citizens who go into this business of trying to affect change with absolutes are going to be very disappointed very quickly.

But, I would also say that you have to know what are those parts of yourself, your character, your value system that can’t be compromised. And the thing about my book – and my first book as well –  is I’m trying to warn people. I’m trying to say,  ‘Look if you get into the politics this is what’s coming at you. You’ve got to go into it with your eyes wide open, so that you know where the compromises or you know where the bad forces are coming from, so that you’re ready for it, so that your steeled against it. So there have to be some things that can’t be compromised and everybody actually goes into politics and stands for political office, or simply citizens who want to get something, then you have to know what that is before you go in and then be resolute about not compromising those things.

But it there’s that hard core it’s probably less and smaller than people think.

Mark Coffin:  So you spent over a decade in politics, what were those things for you? Things you weren’t willing to to compromise on.

Graham Steele:  Don’t lie? Don’t lie about things. I only remember once and it’s kind of like burned into my soul. One time that I will always remember I stood up in the legislature and said something that I knew as I was saying it was not true. And I thought … there was like an internal gasp – not out loud but my inside voice said, ‘you just you just said something you know –

Mark Coffin: Was this like a verbal typo?

Graham Steele: No, no, no, it was something – it was a claim that I was making about the effect about a particular NDP party position would have. And I knew it wouldn’t have that effect, but for our electoral purposes we had to pretend that it would. But that was once.

And always treat people you know as as as being worthy of attention. Never use people, you know and then dispose of them once their use was finished.


That to me was very important. Every person, every single person is of value and I was not gonna participate in any process of decision-making the treated people as disposable means to an end. I think to a large extent I was able to keep true to that. Yeah, that’s what it was for me.

Mark Coffin: That’s this week’s episode of the Govern Yourself Accordingly podcast

Thank you so much for tuning in.

As always, you can find links to any of the articles, resources and books that were mentioned in the show by scrolling through the episode description, and show notes over at Springtide.NGO/GYA3. That’s for Govern Yourself Accordingly episode 3.

Govern Yourself Accordingly is a podcast produced by Springtide, and we are a Canadian Charity committed to helping listeners everywhere lead change through politics with your integrity intact. Find us at Springtide.NGO,; or on Twitter @SpringtideCO. You can find me on Twitter @MarkCoffin.  

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