Howard Epstein and Graham Steele, Part Two
Howard Epstein: Inside the caucus there was a group that met regularly and was very much at odds with the direction of the Dexter government during those years. There was discussion amongst those people about the possibility of crossing the floor and sitting as independents.
Mark Coffin: You’re listening to the Off Script Podcast. My name is Mark Coffin and I am your host.
Last week, we shared the first half of a discussion Springtide – the organization that produces the Off Script podcast – hosted in 2015. We held an event called Book Pub – where we invited Howard Epstein and Graham Steele, two former NDP MLAs – to have a conversation at The Company House in Halifax. Each of them have written very different books about their experience in politics and the NDP government they were a part of. At this event, Book Pub, we invited them to face off against one another, alongside moderator and former NDP communications staffer, Barbara Emodi.
If you didn’t listen to last week’s episode, I highly suggest you go back and take a listen to it, you’ll enjoy this episode much more if you do.
In this episode, you’ll hear Howard and Graham take questions from Barbara, the moderator, the audience, and challenge one another on the claims they made in their books.
Here it is…
Barbara Emodi: This whole concept of a lack of progressive platform, I gotta ask you, bottom line, would there have been an NDP government at all if there had been a stricter loyalty to traditional progressive policies?
Graham Steele: Barbara, I don’t believe that would have been the case. But at the same time, I know that Howard would not agree with me on that. You know what, that’s perfectly OK. In fact, I think this room would divide on the answer to that question.
When the NDP was the traditional NDP, the core vote — the rock-solid core vote — was about 15%. For decades, the highest number of seats we ever got was four seats. Then we got a more centrist, a more — to use a much abused word, a more “small c” conservative leader —and I’m talking not about Darrell Dexter, but I’m talking about Robert Chisholm. Then, there was a whole lot of context around why it was that in the 1998 election we exploded from four seats to 19 seats. That’s when the movement started going.
I don’t believe that you get from 15% percent of the vote to 45% percent of the vote just by doing the same thing that you’ve always done. I just don’t believe that. Now, there’s a lot of people who do believe that, I just happen not to be one of them. Perhaps we went too far — I won’t even say see perhaps — we did go too far. We were in opposition for so long, we shaved off all the pointy ends, all the sharp edges that make New Democrats who they are. So by the time we got elected we did not have an identifiably NDP program. I believe that, I accept that. But at the same time, I totally understand why Darrell wanted to build — with a team, it wasn’t just Darrell Dexter — wanted to build a bigger tent.
But Howard’s book — I like to tease Howard – but one of the things that really bugs me about Howard’s book is that throughout it, is this idea of the NDP purity test. If you don’t agree with Howard it just means you’re not a good enough democrat. Howard kind of shades this, the phrase he uses is “traditional New Democrats” and “adhering to your values”. Howard’s got a test about whether you’re a real New Democrat or not. He’ll administer one to you on the way out of the door if you want. It’s in the book, he’s got a list of questions and he takes somebody like Darrell Dexter, who is a good man, a sincere man who devoted most of his adult life to building this party, and decides he’s not a real New Democrat. First NDP Premier in all of Eastern Canada, worked his guts out to elect New Democrats, formed a government, and he doesn’t pass the purity test. Neither do I. Neither does Maureen MacDonald. I can’t believe, Barbara, fundamentally in a party that applies a purity test to people and say ‘unless you answer these questions correctly, you’re not one of us’.
Barbara Emodi: OK, alright…
(Clapping from audience)
Graham Steele: A smattering of applause!
Barbara Emodi: It’s really hard for me, as a professor, to not throw my two cents-worth in here, but I can do it.
Now Howard, you talk about policy and ideals and consistency. Graham’s book, which he rightly described as being focused on the rules of the game, really we’re talking about a government that lost its chance, right? We’re talking about a government that was voted out. That is a reality that I think [has] important context here. Graham essentially blames — if we’re going to use that word — the rules of the game, the political culture. Do you think that there is that kind of a culture in Nova Scotia, and how do you view the power of the rules of the game?
Howard Epstein: Okay, so I want to say something nice about Graham’s book. So, in psychology there is a concept known as the idea of signal and the idea of noise. Signal of course, is what you want to focus on and noise is all the distractions that are out there. This is a concept that has a lot of application in psychology, but it also has application in politics. We’ve heard from Graham actually, what is in essence an admission from him that he got caught up in all the noise, and that a lot of people do get caught up in all the noise, and they forget about the signal. They forget to keep their eyes on the ball, and this is very easy to do in politics. It’s easy to do in our lives from day to day. No matter what, you’re on about. It’s easy to do in just about anything.
But in politics there’s always something happening. There’s always an issue of some kind. There’s the process, there’s the details of it, if you’re new there’s the whole matter of learning how government works, there is no shortage of things there are going to be distractions, that are the noise. If you’re not focused on the signal, if there isn’t someone or a group of people at the core of government who are focused on what it is that the proper agenda ought to be, then in fact what will happen is someone else will set the agenda.
What I admire about Graham’s book is that he gives a very detailed description of what it is to experience the noise of politics. He’s quite right that there are all these things out there that can distract you and take up almost all your time. In fact it’s easy to slipping into, the idea of following along what it is that seems to be presented to you haphazardly from what comes to you, day to day. That’s certainly part of what comes across.
My complaint is that there was too much of that. To the extent that that we both identified, as we’re certainly on the same page. Where we have a different perspective, is [that] Graham seems to end up at the point of saying it’s impossible to get anything done. There’s nothing but noise. It will inevitably defeat people, even people who are well motivated, that there’s no way around it and politics essentially drives everyone towards that point of being unable to remember what it is or even accomplish what it is that you want to accomplish, even if you [do] remember it. So that’s where we are, I think, on that point, Barbara.
Barbara Emodi: Graham’s book describes politics as being all-consuming but not really, in the end, a positive experience. Where do we go from here? What three things would you do in Nova Scotia right now to improve our democratic process?
Graham Steele: Well, Anne Morninhan, who’s sitting here tonight, said that she’s read both books and she thinks every Nova Scotian should read both books. So that’s a great start. Thank you for that Anne.
I have never said, would never say, will never say to people “politics isn’t worth it”. Politics is totally worth it. The reason why I didn’t just crawl in a hole and hide, the reason I actually wrote the book…
I would never say to people politics is not worth it. Politics is so worth it. It’s so important, and one of the problems we have in Canada is precisely that people are not radicalized enough to get engaged in politics. Look, Canada is a pretty comfortable country for a lot of people. For them, politics is a thrill that they may or may not indulge in. It doesn’t apply to people in this room, because it’s a gorgeous night you’re here. But for Canadians for whom life is not comfortable — and all politicians meet them in the course of our work — they’re so busy just trying to survive that they also, for different reasons, are not engaged. So politics so matters, and what distressed me at the end of my 15 years in politics frankly, was how little I personally had accomplished and how little our government had accomplished. We need a better politics. Where I disagree with Howard, if I could sum it up in one line, is [that] Howard thinks we needed a different leader and a different approach to the policy issues. To me, it’s like “No, no, no, there’s a deeper question, a prior question” which is how it is that we do politics in this country. The essence of my book, for those of you who were in politics or are thinking of going into politics, is that it’s an important job and you need to go in with your eyes wide open. There are far too many people who go in [to politics] with this vague idea: “I just wanna make a difference.” They get elected and they have no idea — literally no idea — what they’re doing, and it takes a year or two or three to figure out how government works. Then they might be defeated in the next election. So the purpose in my book is to say to people “if you gonna go into politics, go in with your eyes wide open”. Know what you’re going face. Know the pressures, know what people are gonna tell you to do, because it’s only if you know in advance that you can resist it, that’s when things are going to change. Smattering of applause…
(Audience of Applause)
Graham Steele: I have to call for it! I actually have to call for my own applause.
Howard Epstein: You didn’t bring your own claqueur?
Barbara Emodi: OK Howard, this question also refers to my comment at the beginning. You were never a cabinet minister. If you had been a cabinet minister, how do you think you could have been able to have affected change? What would you have liked to have done? What — not having had that chance — would you have liked to have taken away?
Howard Epstein: OK, so the way most governments work of course, is that the general caucus doesn’t get to be the decision body on most questions. On most questions, it’s the cabinet that gets to debate. And even then, if the Premier or Prime Minister decides that they want to centralize decision-making in their office, that’s really where the effective decision-making is going to take place. But there is at least a better chance to participate in the debate if you are involved in cabinet.
So my hope would have been that — as a voice that probably would have had a distinctly different set of perspectives than many of the other members of cabinet — that I would have had a chance to influence the agenda and bring a different perspective to it. I [would] hope, in a forum where it might have been effective, [to] remind my colleagues what it is that we have traditionally been about. But you never know. You just never know whether it would have been effective or not. Indeed, I could’ve found myself easily wanting to resign or [actually] resigning, as my good friend Graham did over a matter where he disagreed with his colleagues in terms of a government decision. That’s an option, in fact the only option really, to a cabinet minister who’s a dissenter and doesn’t want to support publicly a particular decision. They either support it, or they don’t. That’s not necessarily true of caucus members, although a lot of governments — a lot of political parties in Canada now, very unfortunately, try to impose upon caucuses the same kind of cohesion and adherence to the prevailing view that cabinet has to adhere to as a matter of cabinet solidarity. I regard this as a hallmark of immaturity of political parties — all political parties, not just the NDP — all parties in Canada. I compare it with what goes on in the UK or in the US Congress, where there are a whole bunch of democrats, a whole bunch of republicans, but inside those parties everyone knows that there’s a wide range of opinions and the members don’t hesitate to stand up and speak publicly about issues and it differ from their leadership, and no one pees in their pants! This happens. This is exactly what should happen. It’s a sign of a mature system that is able to deal with that. For some reason, in Canada it’s just not what prevails. But it’s a great unknown.
Graham Steele: Barbara says it’s okay if I ask a question. Okay look, this is a ‘book pub’ and if we’re not going to stir things up what’s the point in holding this at a pub, right? So I have a question for you, Howard. So. Howard.
Howard Epstein: So. Graham.
Graham Steele: When you get right down to it, in your book, policy issue by policy issue, you talk about what we should have done. And yet, if you look at our voting record, yours and mine in the legislature were essentially identical. In 12 years there’s one thing that I voted differently [and] that was a voice vote, so that’s even in the records. Other than that, I think that your voting record and mine are identical.
Howard Epstein: That’s not true.
Graham Steele: Hold on a minute, I haven’t asked a question yet — except for the ones where you slipped out so that you could say to yourself “no, I didn’t vote that way”. But there’s no record of that and the general public didn’t know. That’s a different issue. Howard, why didn’t you resign?
Howard Epstein: That in fact, is a really good question! That makes sense. First let’s deal with the fact. The one time I did vote against the caucus was when we were still in the opposition and there was a particular issue on which I really did dissent and spoke against the bill that the rest of the caucus wanted to support. There were probably about four or five bills that went through during the time when we were the government, where I would not vote in favour of them. I didn’t speak against them publicly, but I certainly wouldn’t vote in favour of them. I absented myself. Several members of the press who were there knew that I had absented myself and asked me about it, and we chatted about it. But this didn’t end up in me resigning from caucus and sitting as an independent, or standing up and speaking against the party.
And let’s be clear: this was not only me. Inside the caucus there was a group that met regularly and was very much at odds with the direction of the Dexter government during those years. There was discussion amongst those people about the possibility of crossing the floor and sittings as independents. In the end, the judgment was that this would be counter-productive. Given that this was the first NDP government in Eastern Canada as you said, it would have been widely seen as so hugely disloyal and so hugely offensive to the accomplishment of getting a government, that it probably wouldn’t have actually been effective in achieving the objectives that those MLAs who wanted to see different things, were hoping for. It’s not that it wasn’t thought about. It certainly was. In retrospect, maybe we might have done something different. If five or six MLAs had crossed the floor, there would no longer have been a majority government. That would have certainly shaken things up. It would virtually have guaranteed that there wouldn’t be a continuation of the NDP in power perhaps. But that might not have been the worst thing, because many of us feel that that our loyalty wasn’t to the individuals and wasn’t to the party, but to the principles upon which the party was founded. Those principles were meant to support the people who needed those principles advocated for. It might’ve been the wrong choice, but there it is anyway.
Barbara Emodi: OK, alright, isn’t this educational! Now, let’s be realistic. Bureaucracy, in fact, enacts so many directions. You have both had extensive experience dealing with the bureaucracy, and one of the criticisms of the NDP government is [that] in trying to make nice with the conventional politics, they in fact didn’t purge. So I’ve got an interesting question here. To what extent does bureaucracy inhibit a new government from implementing significant change? I guess it’s your turn, Graham.
Graham Epstein: I would say not very much, not nearly as much as people think. I don’t actually agree that there was no purge. It’s not terrifically helpful to fire a bunch of people. The Savage government did when they came. They got rid of a bunch of deputy ministers, and it ended up hurting them in all kinds of different ways. When you think about it though, deputy by deputy, there was almost a complete turnover in the ranks of the deputies over the course of the Dexter government. We just didn’t do it all at once.
But let me talk about something that’s an issue that some of you may have vaguely heard of recently: the film tax credit. Because that kind of sharpens the issue. So I was a minister of finance, I was the Minister nominally in charge of the administration of the film tax credit. Yeah, they used to get really mad at me as well, so “been there done that”. But in the whole debate around the film tax credit, a lot of blame has been put on the finance bureaucrats. Folks, I just don’t believe it. I just don’t buy it. Fundamentally, the decisions are made by the elected officials. The civil servants give advice. I never encountered the situation were I felt that I was being snowed by civil servants, or they were deliberately not telling me everything because they had an agenda that they were trying to push. A lot of people believe that, but I personally never saw it. That’s all I can tell you. When we start pointing fingers at civil servants, what it does is it takes away from the responsibility of the elected officials. That’s where the focus should be.
Howard Epstein: I don’t mind adding just a small thing about that. Someone I grew up with is the late Jane Purves. Jane was chief of staff to Jon Hamm and then she was Minister of Education — a really smart person who moved back and forth between journalism and politics. One of the things Jane Purves said, looking back upon the time when the Tories were government, [she] said one of the mistakes we made was not firing the deputy ministers right at the beginning. I thought that was very good advice. This is not the same thing as a purge of the civil service because the position of Deputy Minister is one in which they serve at the pleasure of the government and their job is to be the intermediary between the elected officials and the rest of the broad civil service. So it’s to be expected I think, that that deputy ministers may well be recruited not just for their inherent administrative talents but for the their capacity and sympathy with promoting the finding ways to promote the a political agenda of of the government in power. Although there certainly was turnover amongst the deputy ministers during our time, it was far from obvious to me, I have to say, that the people who were put in were people who really were somehow in tune with where the NDP was or should have been. You can argue the toss on that, but certainly the idea at the deputy minister level, it’s open.
Graham Steele: Yeah, I actually agree with that. There was a question of competence, but that’s a totally different issue. But Barbara, if you will humour me, in my book I called it the worst political decision the Dexter government ever made: the Yarmouth ferry. I don’t mind saying here in front of all of you, that idea came from the civil service. There’s no New Democrat who got elected saying to themselves “let’s get rid of the Yarmouth ferry”. We were looking for ideas that came to us from the civil service, but we made the decision. So all the fallout, all of the negativity that flowed from that is on us. It’s on me. I was in the room, I was one of the people who made that decision although the idea came from the civil service. That’s their job, to bring ideas and analysis. But fundamentally, not just theoretically, we have a system of ministerial responsibility. That’s where the focus needs to be, so I take full responsibility for everything we decided and I will not point the finger at the civil service.
Barbara Emodi: Howard, you have done a lot of work writing about policy in your book, so I have a question here: youth out-migration. Can government affect that? Give me a policy idea that would change that.
Howard Epstein: So here’s a quick overview the Canadian economy. One of the main things that you have to know is that the federal government has control overall the main economic levers. They control banking and interest rates and trade treaties and transportation and it goes on and on. Oil and gas and pipelines, all those things are in the hands of the federal government. Most economic levers are not in the hands of provincial governments. What the provincial governments can do is they can make the provinces good places to live. We can invest in education and we can invest in protecting the environment and we can invest in workplace health and safety and we can have a good health-care system. Child-care [is an] excellent example as well. Those are things that provincial governments can have control over. So last on the list might be trying to invest in individual companies. When it comes to youth out-migration, I think that if there’s an attractive place to live, then that will certainly help retain youth. I believe in direct intervention on that, in a sense of making your province attractive. But I think as well, people should be encouraged to stay here and not move away. And if they do move away, try to come back. I understand that of course people need jobs and work, but at the same time I tend to think that the emphasis should be on encourage people to start their own jobs. At a time in their life when they can afford to take risks — don’t have a mortgage, don’t necessarily have children, don’t have the kind of middle-class burdens that accrete after a few years — they can take risks in starting small jobs. As a fellow with two kids who are still not off the payroll, I’m all in favour of them starting their own businesses and getting on with that. I think that really what it comes down to, it’s that we can make the place attractive. We can give [young people] as much education as they can take in, and encourage them to start getting on with their own businesses.
Barbara Emodi: Actually I just have to say, my students have more debt than I do.
Howard Epstein: When I talked about education I meant affordable education, absolutely.
Barbara Emodi: Graham, do you have anything you want to say on that one?
Graham Steele: Just three words: post-secondary education. That’s what brought me to Nova Scotia, I’m not a native Nova Scotian, I think Nova Scotia came out ahead [for it] (laughs). When you look at the competitive advantage Nova Scotia has, what we do better more and better than anybody else? We have this awesome network of post-secondary institutions — universities, community colleges, and other kinds of colleges. That’s our advantage. They need to be as strong as possible but the problem is there’s not necessarily agreement about how exactly you make them strong. There’s lots of room for debate. But if it was up to me — and it’s not — but if it were, I would focus our entire economic development effort on strengthening our post-secondary institutions.
So then people say “Okay Steele, why didn’t you do that when you were the minister of finance?”
Barbara Emodi: Election promises are sometimes made only with winning an election in mind. I didn’t know that! (laughs) When do you think it’s acceptable — even laudable — to break and election promise, Howard?
Howard Epstein: Well the point is not to make the promises in the first place, especially not to make promises that are that are silly. Here’s a perfect example of a silly promise: “I will balance the budget within one year and do so without raising taxes or cutting services”. That’s something that is virtually impossible for anyone to believe unless they have stars in their eyes. I mean, why would anyone say something like that? But we have an example in the historical record not so long ago in Nova Scotia, of someone saying exactly that. [It] made no sense. No sense. There was just no credibility in something like that. Now, there’s a difference between a promise like that, which was just so outrageous that we were lucky in that 2009 election that we weren’t taken out and spanked publicly by the press. I know Mr. Gorman is here, but let me say that I only read The Chronicle Herald Mail Star to see who died, not because there’s something useful in terms of our policy criticism there.
Graham Steele: He’s right over there, Howard.
Howard Epstein: I know he is! But there are other kinds of promises that are different. There are promises that say things like “ we’ll pay attention to the environment” or “we will pay attention to inequalities in society”. Those things are sometimes more amorphous, and they might mean different things to different people. It’s hard to say. But in general, our government should follow through on reasonable promises. There’s no doubt about it.
Graham Steele: Political platforms are marketing documents. They have become nothing but marketing documents designed to get you to buy the laundry detergent. Whether it actually makes sense, whether you can actually deliver on them, for the people writing the platform [these are] actually secondary. It may surprise you — I don’t know about you Howard, but speaking for myself personally — I had zero role, zero input in the 2009 election platform. I was a candidate, that was my job. I’d been the NDP finance critic for seven years [and] I had no input. Why is that? Because it is the election team, the campaign team that puts together the election document, it is designed to win votes. There’s a great book out there [written by] Susan Delacourt, Shopping for Votes. [It’s a] great book looking at the history of this. That’s why it happens. So a lot of promises are made that make no sense. Those are the ones that should be broken, because a lot of election promises are stupid and the worst thing we could do is insist that people follow through on promises that are just dumb. But the answer of course, is voters who are not fooled by the marketing.
Howard Epstein: Which is why we get so much voter alienation of course. Why would there [be] such a small turnout in elections? In the 2013 election in Metro, the voter turnout was only 50 percent. This is a scandalous number. But it’s not a scandal that adheres to the voters, it’s a scandal that adheres to the political class who have failed the voters in terms of giving them something interesting to get engaged with.
Graham Steele: Here’s the thing: about marketers and the people running campaigns: they could not care less how many people vote, as long as they get more votes than everybody else. Stephen Harper —can I say that name here? Stephen Harper doesn’t care if three people vote, as long as he gets two of them. That’s the way elections and campaigns have gone. We all allow it to happen.Those of us in a party, as candidates, we all allow it to happen. We let the campaign team do whatever they do, but we also let it happen as voters.
Barbara Emodi: I have a question from CUPE. It seems to me to be bit relevant. These are three things they have worked hard for [and] gave millions of support [to] apparently: cease funding for-profit child care, card recertification, bargaining associations [inaudible] health care — all of which they worked for the election on the assumption that the NDP would deliver, and those three things weren’t. Either one of you want to pick that up?
Graham Steele: Howard?
Howard Epstein: OK. There have been allegations that the NDP government was in the hands of labour. My answer to that is: if only. If only the NDP government was more aligned with our traditional friends in labor. Unfortunately, we mostly were aligned with big business. There were things that I admired about unions, because they are important social organizations with good ideas, including those that just emerged on that list. It was a failure of our government not to follow through, to take that first one about for-profit daycare. This is something that really should have been higher up on the agenda. That is, trimming the extent, or eliminating the extent, to which there is for-profit daycare and making them nonprofits, essentially expanding the numbers of spaces [for non-profit daycare]. It’s difficult in our province to do these things. Many of these things should probably be national programs, and we now see that there is movement in that direction from our party, but we’ll see it when we get there. But yes, [to] go back to the point — if only we had listened more to our traditional friends in labor.
Graham Steele: One of the other things we did do, was we passed first contract arbitration, which to me is just normal. It’s natural, it’s something you do barely thinking about it, and there is nothing else that we did that so united all elements of business against us. They really rattled the chains, not just our chains but the public chain. And we passed it anyway. Then we were defeated, the new government came in and just repealed it, and are we any further ahead than we were? The answer of course is, no. One of the strategic things that I think the Dexter government failed in, is that if you’re gonna make changes, it got to be structural change that the next government can’t come in and just undo. Same thing happened in Ontario under the Rae government. We didn’t do that — I won’t go down each of the things on the list — [but] we weren’t very strategic among the things that we’re trying to do together with our labor partners, that’s for sure.
Barbara Emodi: I want to [pose] a more structural question right now. Both of you seem to agree that leaders have too much power, that Premiere’s offices have too much power. What kind of policies can you put in place at the party level, or the government level, to change the game? What can you do to pull this power away from the Premier’s office and put it in the open? Is there any mechanism that can be set up to do that?
Graham Steele: You know it’s funny. It is not a simple answer, because of course you can pass this law or that law. You say things like “the leader shouldn’t be able to sign off on candidates.” That’s the ultimate weapon a leader has. If he doesn’t like what one of his MLAs is doing — his or her MLAs — and if he doesn’t like a potential candidate, what they’re all about, then he just doesn’t sign their nomination papers and the person’s not a candidate. But think what the parties would be like if they didn’t have that power. Any group, any single interest-group can organize enough. Do you know how many votes it takes to win a nomination in Nova Scotia? Answer: not very many. I won my nomination with roughly 40 votes. So it doesn’t take much for a single interest group to basically take over the Riding Association. The leader has to have the power. But of course, then the power gets abused and misused. So you end up with people who would bring a different voice. You [Howard] tell one of the stories [in your book]. I’m aware of another story that I didn’t tell in my book but you actually name a name — well I’m not gonna say right here.
(Howard and Graham whisper to each other)
Graham Steele: I don’t talk about it in my book but Howard mentioned another example where the leader just said to a potential candidate “you can run if you want, I’m not signing your nomination papers”. But you see what I mean? It’s not simple. If it was simple, it would already be done. With the focus these days on leaders, and with televised debates and televised everything, there’s got to be a focus on an image and the image is that of the leader.
There are reasons — really deep, complex reasons why all the power is concentrated in the Premier’s office. The only real answer is for the people around the Premier to fight back.
When you get elected, the same thing can happen in any caucus. You can bet that in Alberta, a caucus of fifty-some new MLAs is being told “you were elected on Rachel Notley’s coat-tails, so you will do what Rachel Notley and her advisers tell you to do. That will be drummed into them over and over again. More or less the same thing happened here with Darrell Dexter. We’re told we were elected because people liked him, and it’s not easy [to hear]. I wish I could say “yeah, just do this, this, and the whole thing will be fixed.” But it’s not that simple.
Howard Epstein: I would agree to a certain extent. I think that probably we could do with some specific laws that would strengthen democracy inside political parties. Some examples that tend to appeal to me are things that would allow caucuses to, by secret ballot, elect their own Chair or elect who their nominee is going to be for Deputy Speaker, or decide who will chair different committees, the kinds of things that are often offered as perks to people, and as a way to try to keep them in line or favour particular people inside the caucus. But ultimately, no matter what set of rules get put in place, the administration of those rules will depend on the good will of the people who have to administer them. There are always going to be ways for your Prime Minister to accrete power unto themselves and to exercise that power in ways that are not really at their core open, democratic, and accountable. That’s unfortunate, but it’s just the way of the world, no matter what. I do tend to favour adding to the kinds of rules that that will apply internally in political parties. Right now, most of the laws that apply to political parties are around funding, around financing. Of course that’s an important element of openness and accountability, but for the democratic party of making parties better political institutions, I think we’re probably ultimately going to have to see some rules put in place, especially if we ever do move, like most of the rest of the world, to having proportional representation where you get a multiplicity of parties, and where the list of candidates become a real issue.
Barbara Emodi: OK, I’ve got one policy question and a personal question, and then we’re done. Nova Scotia had a reputation for a very strong commitment to environmental law, economic law, and sort of sustainable plan. People who voted for the NDP — and that was majority — really were expecting to see more of that, and they didn’t. What can people who are committed to that agenda do now, to see that it is pursued?
Howard Epstein: OK, well I guess that one is for me. One of the reasons I went into politics was to pursue an environmental agenda. I spent three or four years as executive director of the Ecology Action Centre. I spent lots of time in opposition talking about sustainability issues. The record of the NDP government actually was not terrible on the environment. There’s a very mixed story there. We did some very good things. We certainly changed the targets for renewables in electricity, which is a good thing to have done, we acquired more land for set-aside. These are these are things that were quite useful and there are a variety of other measures. But at the same time, there were things where we really failed to engage with that prickly issues in the way that the public — particularly the engaged public — wanted to see dealt with. An example of course is aquaculture, where we gave money to Cook and we essentially promoted the aquaculture industry instead of announcing at the very beginning that we were committed to world-class standards and to community consent. Ultimately we set up the Doa-Lahey Study which produced an excellent report on this.
Graham Steele: — and Wheeler on fracking.
Howard Epstein: Yeah, there were things that were done, but they were very tricky issues that required some close attention, and we treated them as if they were issues that were perhaps best pushed off until after the next election. Particularly in the case of aquaculture there was clear support for the industry, which was problematic. Forestry was highly problematic. There were things there that were very difficult.
What can people do if they’re dissatisfied? Well, given the fact that the NDP now and for several years has had a very comprehensive set of policies on the environment, it’s not obvious to me that the NDP is not the natural home of people who are serious about the environment. I think in fact there’s much to hope for out of the NDP on sustainability issues. There is of course a Green Party in Nova Scotia, but it virtually doesn’t exist. It’s not that it might not get some traction at some point, but in terms of being a serious political entity it’s just not there. My good friend David Koon got elected for the Green Party in Fredericton in the provincial election last year. I think is executive assistant is here tonight. David is doing wonderful work and did wonderful work for years and years at the Conservation Council, but that’s not exactly the province turning itself over to the Green Party, that was a personal victory for David Coon. In Nova Scotia we don’t have candidates who are running for the Green Party who have that kind of profile and history. So at this point, as I said, the story for the NDP in Nova Scotia on the environment is mixed but generally very good and there’s a hope for it in the future.
Graham Steele: I know this is gonna come as a shock to Barbara, but I agree with everything he just said.
Barbara Emodi: Well that’s a happy note to wrap this up on. There’s heartbreak in both [of] these books. Both of you thought it was going to turn out better, that’s why you wrote the books.
Graham: How many people in this room thought the Dexter government was going to be better than it was?
So the big question about the future is would either for you return for a different NDP, for a different leader? Would either of you run for leader? Are you out of the game or would you come back in for the right reasons?
Howard Epstein: I’m retired and my brain looks like a piece of Swiss cheese at this point, so I’m not really a candidate for running for office again, or certainly not for leader. But my young friend Graham, whose an example of an unemployed youth in Nova Scotia… clearly Graham is a talented fellow and I hope [he] continues to think seriously about politics. But there are many ways to be involved in politics without being a candidate. Although I could never be a candidate again, I’m involved in politics, I’m involved in the party, I’m involved in speaking publicly about policy issues and I hope to continue to do that so long as I can. Graham speaks about policy issues, I hope he continues to do that. He seems to have eliminated the possibility of involvement in electoral politics for himself in the future, but who knows!
Graham Steele: …Thanks, Howard. So here’s the thing: for those of you in the room who’ve read my book, you understand what I mean when I say that being in politics for fifteen years is just exhausting. I don’t mean physically exhausting or mentally — although it is it is both those things — but there’s some part of your soul that just gets exhausted. The way politics is done in Canada… I’m done. I’m not going back, and not ever going back. I wrote the book because I thought there was a story that needed to be told, but not so I could use it as a trampoline back into politics. That’s not gonna happen. It’s so that you, out there, can learn from what happened to me and the people that I was associated with, like Howard, learn from those mistakes that we made. Save yourself fifteen years — because it took me 15 years to write ‘What I Learned About Politics’ — and then get into politics in whatever form that is, and do better. So the question is, Barbara, not what I’m going to do. It’s what you are going to do.
Barbara Emodi: I think a smart moderator knows when she’s heard the last word, so thank you all very much.
Mark Coffin: Thank you for listening to the Off Script podcast.
You’ve been listening to the recording from an event we held in 2015 called Book Pub, featuring Howard Epstein and Graham Steele.
As we shared in an earlier episode, we’re taking a break for about a month to work on the next set of standard episodes, the ones that follow the career of the former MLAs of the Nova Scotia legislature. We’ll be coming back in April with a new distribution partner, a new co-host, and a special theme the next set of episodes will be focused on. More on that in the weeks ahead.