In this episode, we unpack how a meeting of the Nova Scotia Cabinet works. We explore the tension between Cabinet and the Premier’s Office, and how the Premier’s office has grown to wield more and more power from the days of John Savage and John Hamm to those of Darrell Dexter and Stephen McNeil.
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Cabinet and the premier’s office
Mark Coffin: You’re listening to On the Record, Off Script, and I’m your host, Mark Coffin. In this episode we’ll be talking about how cabinet actually works. The rote and routine decisions that every cabinet is bogged down with. as well as how political strategy is discussed at cabinet, how power is balanced between cabinets and premier’s offices, and how that’s changed from the cabinets of John Savage and John Hamm, to the cabinets of Darrell Dexter and Stephen McNeil.
We’ll hear from cabinet ministers that served in the Liberal, NDP, and Progressive Conservative governments, and about how the term ‘consensus’ means something different when you’re in the cabinet room.
That’s this week on On the Record, Off Script.
This episode sponsored by Hello Fresh.
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One of the things we heard consistently from the former MLAs we spoke with when we asked them about the legislature was that:
Mark Parent: In politics, in the legislature, it was all just theatre. Just play-acting. No decisions were made there.
Graham Steele: We know that what goes on in the legislature is just for show. The real decisions are being made somewhere else. They’re remaining other rooms — the premier’s office, the cabinet room, their ministers’ offices. They’re being made in office buildings around downtown Halifax. And what all of those rooms have in common is that you’re not allowed inside.
Mark Coffin: In the last two episodes off On the Record, Off Script we began exploring the question of how power works within the provincial government.
First by considering what an MLA on either side of the house needs to do to get something done. Then by looking at the way cabinet ministers approach decision-making within their own offices.
In this episode — the final episode dedicated to this particular topic — we’re going to explore the two places where power is most concentrated in the Nova Scotia government: at the provincial cabinet table, and in the Premier’s office.
In our interviews, we learned relatively quickly that, as a general rule, each government’s cabinet operated differently than the next, and the premier who made cabinet work the way it did.
But some things worked the same, no matter who was in the premier’s chair.
Like who sits where. It might seem like an odd place to start, but we’ll begin with the seating plan.
Andrew Younger: I’ll give you a picture of what it looks like in the cabinet room. You have the premier sitting at the head of the table — a big oblong table.
Mark Coffin: That’s Andrew Younger. He was a cabinet Minister for several years in Stephen McNeil’s Liberal cabinet during the party’s first term in government. He served as Minister of both Energy and the Environment, and ended his career sitting as an independent member, outside the liberal caucus and cabinet.
Andrew Younger: Ministers are seated in order of precedence, which is basically who was elected first. So if Howard Epstein were appointed to cabinet in the dying days of the Dexter NDP, he would have been near the head of the table because he’d been around for so long. That already creates an interesting dynamic, because the people who were most recently elected are at the end of the table, further away from the premier.
Mark Coffin: I thought it was by the level or the seniority of the department.
Andrew Younger: No, there is no official level of seniority, but the only exception is the deputy premier, they would sit at the top. Other than that it’s all by precedence. But there’s a problem. You could have the most important thing to raise, but you’re at the back end of the table because you were not only the last one elected, but alphabetically you’re riding is at the end, too. That’s the second part of the precedence, if everyone was elected on the same day.
I’ll give you an example. Kelly Regan and I were elected at the same time. She was Bedford and I was Dartmouth, so she sat in front of me in precedence. We were elected at the same time but Bedford comes before Dartmouth. That’s important because you can see the dynamic.
Then sitting off to the side of the table is the staff person who is sort of the clerk of the executive council, if you will. The premier’s deputy minister would normally be there, then the chief of staff, and a gaggle of communications or senior advisor people.
Mark Coffin: Beyond the seating plan, the other thing that remains consistent between cabinet meetings from one government to the next is the amount of routine approvals that each cabinet must conduct.
In any cabinet meeting, under any government, there are the kind of decisions that just need to happen — nothing too controversial — decisions that by law, the full cabinet must make. There is no shortage of things like these.
Graham Steele: The thing that people don’t seem to realise about the cabinet is most of the stuff that comes to it is there because the law requires it to go to cabinet.
Mark Coffin: Graham Steele was the finance minister for Darrell Dexter’s NDP government.
Graham Steele: So the cabinet — the executive council — is the body that has to decide a million things on behalf of the government. Most of the laws put responsibility for making all kinds of decisions, ultimate responsibility, on the governor in council — what it’s called in Nova Scotia. Which means that a lot of stuff is there because the law requires it to go to cabinet.
People have no idea that a lot of the cabinet agenda is pure formality, something that has to be approved by cabinet and the cabinet ministers don’t read it, they don’t understand it, they couldn’t care less, it is just a requirement to go through cabinet. That would describe the vast majority of stuff on a cabinet agenda.
Andrew Younger: One of the things that people find strange is that if you want to do a land sale with the province, like closing a bit of street that didn’t really exist and they going to sell it, well that goes to cabinet. It might only be a thousand bucks, but it has to go to cabinet.
Graham Steele: Cabinet is not a body where there’s extended, freewheeling policy discussions. A lot of it is just churning through the agenda. You’ve got all these items, and it’s like a sausage factory. You’ve got to keep churning the wheel, because if you don’t decide these things they’re just going to be on the agenda for the following week. There’s so much stuff coming to the cabinet that you’ve got to crank out the decisions.
Mark Coffin: According to Graham, there wasn’t any particularly logic to the order in which these decisions would come to cabinet.
Graham Steele: Because it is this formal legal body, the stuff on the agenda is fairly random. It’s just whatever is ready at a particular moment in time.
There’s no rhyme or reason to what’s in front of the cabinet on any particular day. Whatever the sausage factory has pushed up to the top level that week, that’s what’s on the agenda.
Mark Coffin: Cabinet meetings are typically a full morning, but most of that time would generally be taken up by these sorts of decisions.
Graham Steele: What ended up happening in the Dexter cabinet — and I assume it’s like this in other cabinets — we’d go to the meeting and the first half hour was for whatever anybody wanted to bring up about anything, and the rest of the time was just ploughing through the agenda. When the agenda was through all the formalities, we went home.
Andrew Younger: The official part of the meeting is the agenda. Then you have what they call an ‘in-camera’ meeting, where they’ll discuss strategy. There’s some debate about how useful cabinet meetings are, because for the vast majority of issues on the agenda, there isn’t a lot discussed.
Mark Coffin: In the part of the meeting devoted to political strategy, far bigger, far more consequential questions might be entertained. Questions like, how should the government respond to the polls? What should the government do in response to an upcoming negotiation with a union? Can the government break this promise that no longer seems feasible? What policies and programs that weren’t at all on the government radar during the election now seem critical? Where can the government afford to spend some of its political capital, cutting a certain program, or making an unpopular decision?
The routine items that cabinet addressed were fixed. They just had to get done. But everything else? All of those questions about political strategy? The answers to those questions are the things that we notice. They’re the things that differentiate one government from the next.
It’s those questions, whether they were entertained at all, and how often they were entertained, that made the difference between how cabinet meetings worked differently from one premier to the next.
Some of the cabinets we heard about were cabinets where the ministers who sat around the table felt like they had a substantial degree of power, and others felt like that power was too concentrated in the premier’s office.
But all of the ex-ministers we spoke to seemed to agree that at cabinet the power to determine whether a cabinet was consulted and engaged, or simply given their marching orders, wholly resided at the premiers office.
At the end of the day, if there were deep disagreements around the cabinet table, it was up to the Premier to make the final call.
In the same way that each Minister decides (for their own reasons) how much, or if at all, to consult caucus; the premier decided (for their own reasons) how much, or if at all, to bring the whole cabinet into discussions on key political and strategy decisions.
So for the rest of this episode, what we’re going to do is walk through the experience of cabinet ministers who served in the last several cabinets of Nova Scotia Governments. We’ll talk to ministers from the cabinets of John Savage, John Hamm, Rodney MacDonald, Darrell Dexter, and one minister from Stephen McNeil’s government.
Wayne Adams and Francene Cosman served as ministers in John Savage’s liberal government
Mark Coffin: When it comes to broader, bigger government-wide initiatives that really define a government, in the government you served in, how would cabinet be involved in those kind of discussions or how would it show up in the cabinet?
Wayne Adams: in our experience, total participation, conciliatory… the premier we had was probably the best facilitator I’ve ever encountered, whether it be from school days to industry days, to certainly to politics.
Mark Coffin: So how would he operate?
Wayne Adams: The agenda would be written by the premier and his staff of course, but then he shared the agenda, item by item, to get our consensus, get our feeling. [He’d ask] is this something we can go forward with? Is it something we can afford to do?
Francene Cosman: It would vary, depending on the issue. If there was something really contested it would ride to the premier, because the premier is the ultimate authority, and a minister brings their own issues forward, the deputy comes in, presents the issue as well.
At that time there were a few times when, you know, you could question your fellow cabinet minister and say, “Could you look at it this way? Or will you bring it back?” There was some give and take but we had a lot of authority, as ministers of our own department, and it usually was brought forward and handled so that we had what we wanted.
Mark Coffin: We heard that Premiers John Hamm and Rodney MacDonald — both Progressive Conservative party leaders — ran their cabinets in a way that was more consensus oriented than the premiers who would come after them.
Gordon Balser was one of the ministers who served in John Hamm’s cabinet.
Gordon Balser: We were bound by cabinet confidentiality in terms of talking about you know specifics. But I would say that the way it would work generally speaking, is that if there was an issue that needed to be brought forward to cabinet that fell under your responsibility as minister, briefing papers would be prepared and your staff would take you as the minister through it so that you had a fairly good understanding of what the issue was and what the implications were.
You’d be given time at the cabinet table to present that information and then there would be a substantive discussion where everyone had equal input, and at the end of the day when it became time to make the decision it would be a consensus if you will, there wouldn’t be a “yay” or “nay.”
Mark Coffin: Before becoming premier himself, Rodney MacDonald served as a minister in John Hamm’s cabinet.
Rodney MacDonald: You don’t vote in cabinet.
Mark Coffin: How does it work?
Rodney MacDonald: It’s consensus.
Mark Coffin: So one minister stands up and says…
Rodney MacDonald: Well, you agree. People often ask why does everyone agree? The process is that you leave that room coming into an agreement.
Mark Coffin: Was it your sense that this was something you and John Hamm took into the cabinet room, or it is the way it’s always been done?
Rodney MacDonald: My understanding was that it’s always been that way.
Mark Coffin: When we considered everything we heard about consensus decision making in cabinet, it wasn’t clear what ‘consensus’ meant in this cabinet, or any cabinet where the term was used to describe how a decision was reached.
According to Rodney MacDonald, in cabinet…
Rodney MacDonald: Your team comes to an agreement. That may take one meeting, it may take six meetings until you find a decision that everyone can come to terms with. So, the first number of times I was in a cabinet, I was really struck by this. Most people would think there would obviously be a vote — a secret vote — but that’s not the case. It’s not a vote.
Mark Coffin: Jamie Muir was a minister in both Rodney MacDonald’s and John Hamm’s PC Cabinets. His perspective, as someone that had not sat in the premier’s chair, was quite different.
Jamie Muir: The number one rule is that the Premier is always right. Ok. So, if you want to disagree with what the premier is proposing then in the cabinet you’ve got the opportunity to vent [about] why you don’t like a particular proposal, and then it comes down to collective decision. Sometimes the premier would say, well that’s a pretty good idea! Let’s make a modification.
Mark Coffin: So you said on the one hand the premiere’s always right, but it’s a consensus and collective decision at the same time.
Jamie Muir: Yeah.
Mark Coffin: I can’t understand how those two things go together.
Jamie Muir: If it’s a government priority, like the budget; budget would be put together, everybody would have some input into it, it would be the final document. If we felt this was the budget that should be presented, then that’s what it is.
But on the other hand, if going through the discussion you say, “I see that this is part of that budget [but] I think that this is more important than that, can you switch those two lines?” You can do that type of thing. The premier basically has the final decision, he’s the chair of the board. If everyone in the room was a against it, they might rethink it, but if one person says they don’t like it, the premier’s opinion would be the one which cabinet would endorse.
You can argue all you want, but when it comes down to the final [decision] there’s nobody voting no on that. It never happened to us, but if you go in there and say all of a sudden, “I don’t agree” and you’re a member of cabinet, it’s likely that you won’t be a member of cabinet the next day.
Mark Coffin: That is the reality facing cabinet ministers. Even in cabinet’s like John Hamm’s and Rodney MacDonald’s, where there weren’t necessarily examples of ministers who pushed too hard, or stepped out of line, the notion that a minister who went too far could be removed by the premier was never far from a cabinet ministers mind.
The difference was simply how clearly that was communicated, and understood by all members of cabinet. It could be implicit, as it was in the conversations that happened around the cabinet tables of Rodney MacDonald and John Hamm, or it could be made explicit — by making an example, as it was in the cabinet of Darrell Dexter.
In last week’s episode, we heard this take from Maurice Smith, who served as the minister of transportation and infrastructure renewal in Darrell Dexter’s NDP cabinet.
Maurice Smith: There were a couple of issues. Like the clear-cutting one, and the one about the cuts to education. The ministers themselves didn’t go along with what the plan was going to be from the central office. They weren’t’ the minister any longer. Marilyn Moore was moved out of education because she wouldn’t go along with the drastic cuts that were asked. John MacDonnell was taken out of natural resources because he wasn’t supportive of the final clear-cutting issue. It’s always the premier’s discretion. They were given other portfolios, they were just moved.
That’s the kind of power I think that the premier’s office had. They would basically say this is what was going to be happening. Even if you, as minister, weren’t agreeing, it’s going to be happening. So if you’re not on board, someone else will do it.
Mark Coffin: But there were inconsistencies in what we heard from members of Dexter’s cabinet on how powerful the force of the premier’s office was — sometimes even from the same member. For instance, in a different section of his interview, Maurice Smith also said this…
Maurice Smith: Cabinet is fascinating because it’s by consensus, but there were a couple of times when I said I can’t really agree, and the premier would say, “if we’re not all on the same page on this, we can’t do it”.
Mark Coffin: Perhaps I’m about to read too much into Mo Smith’s last statement, but one way to square this inconsistency is to assume that the premier’s office got smart, and stopped bringing decisions they had their minds made up on to cabinet. Percy Paris, another minister in the Dexter government told us about his experience.
Percy Paris: Some decisions were coming from that premier’s office. Whoever that was — and there were a number of them — there was the premier’s office that had this power to do this. There were times that something would happen, and it would’ve been a decision that came out of the premier’s office.
Mark Coffin: With no unnecessary involvement of the cabinet or caucus.
Percy Paris: Yeah.
Mark Coffin: Someone who is solidly on-the-record for having voiced his discomfort with the Premier’s office making decisions unilaterally is Graham Steele.
It’s what made him leave cabinet. In his book, What I Learned About Politics he wrote about the negotiation of a collective agreement with the NSGEU, one where Treasury Board and caucus had already approved one proposal, and within hours of caucus approving the plan – as championed by the premier – the premier’s staff had convinced their boss to float a more generous offer to the union, and Graham, then the finance minister, had no means of opposing the decision.
In his book, he wrote:
“I knew what this meant. Darrell’s staff had kept working on him after the caucus meeting, and they’d persuaded him that this alternative proposal would get the deal. There had been no consultation with the Treasury Board. There had been no consultation with the caucus about why the game plan had changed …
The boys in the premier’s office had gone to work on Darrell and they didn’t care what anybody else thought. Once the offer was made to the union, it couldn’t be pulled back. And the premier had told his boys to make the offer.”
Mark Coffin: When there were discussions on political issues and strategic issues in the Dexter cabinet, it happened at the beginning of the meeting, typically for just a half-hour, before it came to the point where the focus had to shift towards the rote and routine business of cabinet.
Mark Coffin: Can I ask you about that half hour where you say anybody can bring up anything they wanted to? What types of discussions would happen there?
Graham Steele: People would bring up things that were not part of the formal agenda. There might be some political issue, somebody had heard something, or they were concerned about something. We didn’t do that for the first little while, and then everybody realised that we were having these cabinet meetings week after week but we weren’t dealing with the political issues.
Everybody imagines the cabinet as the top political body where all the hot political issues of the day are being discussed, but that wasn’t happening at all. I can’t remember how long it took us to set aside that first half-hour. It couldn’t be too long because you set too long from the cabinet meeting, you couldn’t get through the agenda. Sometimes the agenda was incredibly long. Sometimes it was really short. Like I said, it just depended on what was pushed along by the sausage factory. There was no rhyme or reason, it was whatever was bugging some person or whatever hot political issue of the day was.
I can’t say it tended to be devoted to this or that topic, the topics were all over the place. With the premier we just talked about something important that he had been working on lately, that he’d done or seen or heard. But we had to reserve some time for that kind of open-ended discussion.
Now, I can imagine other premiers might allow more time for that, but we didn’t in the Dexter government.
That kind of stuff — dealing with the hot issues of the day, putting out the fires — ended up being the domain of the premier’s office, and most of it was not stuff that would have been helped or advanced by talking it through with the whole cabinet.
Mark Coffin: Graham was quick to point out that it wasn’t so much that certain issues weren’t getting paid attention to, but rather, that the meaningful discussion – discussion that had some impact on the ultimate decision would often happen at cabinet committees, or in the premier’s office.
Graham Steele: It’s not happening in the full cabinet. That’s something I think most people don’t realise — and why would you unless you sat in the cabinet? Because it’s the top legal body, there’s a certain amount of formal legal stuff that it has to do, and it takes up a lot of time.
So far, I’ve just talked about what happens in full cabinet. So then you have cabinet committees, and that’s where a little bit more of the real work is being done, where there were more discussions. There were several cabinet committees. There was Policy and Priorities. There was Treasury Board of course — which is technically a committee of cabinet. There was an economic development committee…
Mark Coffin: Something we haven’t talked much about yet is cabinet committees.
Even though we’re just getting to talking about them now, they’ve been apart of how cabinet operates, and makes decisions for all of the cabinets we’ve discussed.
Cabinet committees were made up of Cabinet Ministers, and in the case of the Cabinet legislation committee, some backbench government MLAs.
The committees Graham just mentioned…
Graham Steele: Those were the main ones, and they were all attended by people from the premier’s office, senior people from the premier’s office. Those committees tended to be the places where you had more of that open-ended discussion. Treasury Board is essentially dealing with approving all expenditures of the government. So that’s pretty important. That’s the place where you’re putting the whole picture together, about how all the pieces fit together.
Under the Dexter government the Policy and Priorities committee essentially stopped meeting after a while because all the stuff it was supposed to do was being run out of the premier’s office. They just got tired of the formality of taking it to the Policy and Priorities committee. That didn’t work very well.
It’s because people are busy. If a committee stops meeting it’s a sign that people don’t find it very useful, and the premier and the premier’s office just didn’t find that particular committee very useful. If they could do it upstairs on the seventh floor, why would they take it to a cabinet committee?
Mark Coffin: It’s probably a good time to share a bit of an orientation to where these places are.
The premiers office and the room where cabinet meets are in the same building. It’s called One Government Place, and it’s directly across the street (away from the water) from the rear-door of Province House.
If you walk out the rear door of Province House, across Granville Street, and in the doors to One Government Place you’re on the floor where cabinet meets. If you take the elevator up to top floors of the building, you’re where the premier’s office is.
Graham Steele: The cross-cutting stuff, the stuff that affects the whole government, that’s being done out of the premier’s office. You’ll know from reading my book, my view is that it’s not necessarily a bad thing. But our premier’s office was just very badly understaffed. So they were run off their feet, trying to run the government — a handful of people on the sixth and seventh floor of One Government Place. That’s where the real decision making was happening, not in a cabinet room.
Mark Coffin: Up until now, we’ve reached out to all of the living Premier’s we’ve mentioned in this series to invite them to participate in the same kind of exit interview we offered to other MLAs.
Rodney MacDonald was the only premier to accept our invitation, so we haven’t had the chance to hear from other premier’s like Darrell Dexter about how they approached cabinet, and why it’s sometimes their preference to make decisions unilaterally.
Andrew Younger: I was one of the people — and it probably didn’t help me politically — who would speak up when I thought he [the premier] was wrong, and speak up in cabinet probably too often.
Mark Coffin: The last person we’ll hear from in this interview is Andrew Younger, the only former cabinet minister and MLA we’ve interviewed who served in Stephen McNeil’s liberal cabinet and caucus.
Andrew Younger: McNeil’s personality was such that, it is a little bit risky to tell him that you think he’s wrong. Somebody’s going to hear that and think that’s a criticism but there’s lots of people in politics who have that personality.
Mark Coffin: In terms of the way things worked in Stephen McNeil’s cabinet, how does decision-making work there?
Andrew Younger: Well, it changed. When we were first elected in 2013 we were all given an incredible amount of freedom to go and do our own thing.
Mark Coffin: When the Liberals took office in the fall of 2013, it was already well established that Darrell Dexter’s NDP government had centralized much of the decision-making for their government within the premier’s office.
So when McNeil’s Liberals took office, it seemed like an intentional shift to give ministers the independence that was seen as lacking in the previous government.
Andrew Younger: We were given mandate letters that said [something like] “Here’s what you’re responsible for getting done, get it done. You make the decisions in your department. You lead that.”
To some extent that followed through, but that started to to drift toward the end of my first year [even though] I was always fortunate to get quite a lot of latitude. In every cabinet of every party, you’re going to get weaker ministers, or ministers that don’t necessarily read their briefing books, or don’t necessarily know they have something on the agenda. I’m convinced that happens for every party, but it’s how somebody addresses that.
What happened is, there was sort of a clampdown on the cabinet to make sure that every decision started going through the premiers office before it made it to cabinet. The premier started taking more control of certain decisions, the premier’s office staff started getting more involved, and I think the decision making style evolved. Now it has very much become [the case that] the premier makes the decisions and the ministers implement them to a certain extent. The premier’s office — and you’ve seen this in the away they’ve staffed that office — now has absolute control over the departments.
That is what I understand was much more like Darrell Dexter’s government, at least toward the end. When I came in as energy minister, people were surprised at the latitude that I had and the freedom I had to address the day to day issues. They had said under Dexters’ government, there was somebody from the premier’s office in the energy department basically every day — pretty-well housed there.
Mark Coffin: When did that shift take place?
Andrew Younger: It started to change when there issues in health care. The premier’s office would end up getting flat-footed, and wouldn’t even know there was something coming up. People weren’t necessarily prioritizing the right issues. For example the doctor’s issue. [They kept saying] the doctor’s shortage wasn’t an issue, then all of a sudden it exploded.
The premier’s office — whether they should have known it or not, people can debate politically — but it caused them to become much more involved in the health department. That spread out, over all areas.
Mark Coffin: One thing that we heard from Andrew Younger that we didn’t hear from ministers in any other government was about the importance the premier and cabinet placed on polling data.
Andrew Younger: The one thing you need to know about the McNeil government is that they relied heavily on pollin. They got in trouble for it early on, because they were using CNS to do it — Communications Nova Scotia — which you’re allowed to do, but it meant all that polling data was available through FOIPOP (the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act). So they stopped doing that and the party does a lot of it now. Almost every decision they make is polled and focus grouped, and so forth.
Mark Coffin: Like other cabinets, where the premier’s opinion was the most important opinion, Andrew told us that McNeil’s cabinet was no different.
Andrew Younger: The premier certainly had the last word. Officially cabinet is always by consensus, because whenever a decision is made in cabinet it’s a unanimous decision. There is no vote, but there were items that we voted on as an informal show of hands. There weren’t any significant ones that I recall that went against what the premier wanted to do. Usually, if it appeared that the majority of the room felt differently than the premier, it would get deferred. Then there would be discussions and at a later date it would come back to cabinet and the decision would be worked out. That didn’t happen too often because usually everybody knew where it was going. Nothing went ahead without the premier agreeing to it. During the time I was there — I was in cabinet for three years — there seemed to be a much more intense pre-strategy meeting in the premier’s office, among him and his staff.
Mark Coffin: People say that decision-making in Nova Scotia politics happens in a black box. But that presumes that once you’re inside the black box, you can get a handle on how decisions are being made. And that’s not entirely true.
There’s not one black box, there are several. And each of them contains even more black boxes. And all of those black boxes are overlapping. If you’re brand new to Nova Scotia politics, you might be forgiven for presuming that decision-making happens in the legislature. So if you want to know what’s happening you look in the legislature. In the legislature, you find the members of cabinet.
Within the cabinet, you find the members of Treasury Board; one committee of cabinet, and when you look at both the cabinet and the governing caucus, you’ll find the members of the legislation committee of cabinet.
Between the legislation committee and Treasury Board, the key responsibilities of the government in the legislature are taken care of: bringing forward legislation, and collecting and spending public funds. But what you don’t see is premier’s office. The black box that’s often invisible to the public.
It’s this office whose staff will influence the premier’s decision-making, and it’s the premier who will decide whether to trust one cabinet minister or another with the decisions that are made within their own offices.
Some ministers may retain their power, while others will not, and their offices will become black-box decoys.
So, no, decision-making in government doesn’t happen in “a” black box, it happens across several, nested and overlapping black boxes.
It’s kind of like those Russian matryoshka dolls, where you pick up the doll, only there’s a tinier doll inside of it, and a tinier doll inside of it, and an even tinier doll inside it.
Except it’s not like a Russian matryoshka doll, because it’s multi-dimensional: they’re overlapping, there is no clear delineation of boundaries between dolls.
And as soon as you think you can see where something is, your vision gets blurry again, or you no longer trust your vision. When there are so many places to hide a decision, it is extremely difficult for the average citizen to see where decisions are actually being made.
In an upcoming episode of the podcast, we’re going to share some of answers we heard to one of the final questions we asked former MLAs in our exit interviews.
That question was this: what needs to change in order to improve Nova Scotia politics? One of the answers you’ll hear shared often is ‘more education about politics in the school system’, and a public that better understands the process.
Politics is about how power is distributed within a society. It’s about who controls what. It’s possible to teach people about the political process — the way things are supposed to be done. To talk about the places power supposedly lies. We probably should teach children about those things.
But if we do… inevitably there will be a kid at the back of the class paying very little attention to that lesson. Maybe their teacher will call that kid out, and tell them to smarten up. Maybe that kid will snap back and say, “Come on, miss, we all know that’s not how it really works.”
And they’ll be right.
Thanks for listening to this week’s episode of On the Record, Off Script.
This episode has not only been one of the episodes I’ve enjoyed writing most, but it’s also one of the episodes I think most people need to hear.
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We have two episodes left in the story of Nova Scotia’s former MLAs. We hope you’ll tune in.
If you’re a first time listener, we encourage to go back and listen to some of the earlier episodes, where we heard some never before publicly told stories from Nova Scotia’s former MLAs.
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George Archibald: Sometimes it dragged on. I’m not a person that likes long meetings. If it’s more than an hour, it’s too long. We’d meet and have lunch…
Cripes, we started [meetings] with breakfast, and then lunch. I’m thinking, “Fellas, for the love of Jesus, boys. Gimme a breakfast or give me a lunch, but I don’t want both in here.” Anyway, it was… nice.
Ramona Jennex: They would bring — oh my God, I cannot to this day eat a sandwich. I hate sandwiches. I have never in my life hated an egg sandwich [but] if I saw another egg sandwich…
I used to like them at one time. That’s what you got — coffee and a sandwich. We didn’t have steak dinners, there was nothing fancy, it was just something to keep you going, and we would work line, by line, by line.
George Archibald: And always, there is somebody in cabinet and caucus that has to talk about everything. Over the time I was in caucus and cabinet, it’d be one guy. He had to talk about everything — monopolize everything — he knew more than everybody. He’d get defeated or quit.
Jesus, it wouldn’t be a week before someone else jumped in and became the new rockstar who had to voice his opinion on everything! To me it was amusing, because some of these guys weren’t that bright but they had to talk all the time.