This week we share the recording from a discussion with two former members of the NDP caucus, who have written books on their experience in Atlantic Canada’s first NDP government.

Listen to part II of this discussion.

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Episode Transcript

Howard Epstein and Graham Steele, Part One

Graham Steele: I have to say, I’ve given a lot of speeches over the years. This is the first time I’ve ever given a speech with a drink my hand, so this should go particularly well.

Mark Coffin: You’re listening to the Off Script podcast. My name is Mark Coffin and I am your host.

In June of 2009 the Nova Scotia NDP, led by the-party leader Darrell Dexter won a majority of the seats in the provincial election, and became the first NDP government elected in all of Atlantic Canada.

Despite Nova Scotians having a long history of giving new premiers at least two chances to try their hand at leading a government, the NDP were ultimately defeated in the subsequent election in 2013.

Many NDP supporters were disappointed by the approach taken by their own party in government. Others were disappointed by the fact that they never won a second term. And some were disappointed by both.

Two of the people who were a part of the NDP caucus for the decade leading up to their victory in 2009 are Howard Epstein and Graham Steele. Both Howard and Graham were disappointed in the performance of their government and their party, and each of them have written books reflecting on that experience.

In the Spring of 2015, just after Howard published his book, Springtide – the organization that produces this podcast – hosted an event with both of them. The event was called Book Pub – where we invited Howard and Graham to face off with one another, alongside moderator and former NDP communications staffer, Barbara Emodi.

This week on the Off Script podcast we’re going to share the first part of the discussion from that evening.

One note before we jump into the tape from Graham’s speech: the audio quality drops a couple of minutes into his introductory comments, because we lost power to the sound board. You’ll still hear what he had to say but it will actually be the feed from one of the camera microphones. A few minutes later, the microphone Graham was speaking into gets back up and running, and you’ll be hearing his remarks from that mic. So, just FYI.

(Audience Clapping)

Graham Steele: Thank you very much, Barbara. Thank you for your kind words. The smartest guy in the room is actually Howard. Just ask him, he’ll tell you.

I have to say, I’ve given a lot of speeches over the years. This is the first time I’ve ever given a speech with a drink my hand, so this should go particularly well. The best thing about the event tonight is that no matter what happens tonight, this is an awesome fundraiser for Springtide Collective. Thank you – every single one of you – for being here tonight, because when you cut through all the bullshit in politics, Springtide is good people doing good work, trying to make democracy better. Just by being here tonight you’re making Springtide just a little bit stronger. So thanks to you to all of you.

(Audience Claps)

The worst part about being here tonight — that was the best part, this is the worst part — is I had to read Howard’s book again.

(Audience Laughs)

Now, there’s got to be a little bit of entertainment here right, or it’s hardly worth coming. So despite what you’re about to hear me say – because look, I’m not here to brag-up my book – I want to contrast our books. I want to say “here’s what I saw” and then “here’s what I saw in Howard’s book,” and he’s gonna get the rebuttal.

But despite anything I’m going to say tonight, Howard’s book is definitely, definitely worth reading. Because here’s the thing: part of the political culture in Nova Scotia is a culture of secrecy. You just don’t talk about what goes on. Howard and I together have doubled the number of books [written about it] in the last 50 years.

(Audience Laughs)

All the other books that are out there are about the 1970s, okay? And nobody has written since. We desperately need our politicians to tell the story — the good, the bad, and the ugly. Because I think government and politics is a mystery to most people. We know that what goes on in the legislature is just for show. The real decisions are being made somewhere else. They’re being made in 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. All the important decisions are being made somewhere else that you can’t see. So Howard and I have tried to lift the curtain, open the door, open the window, whatever metaphor you want to use, to say “Look this is what’s going on.”

So I’m gonna start by talking about what my book is all about and I’m gonna talk a little bit about what I see in Howard’s book and why mine is better.

(Audience Laughs)

Let’s be very clear about this – both Howard and I start from a position of disappointment. We are all disappointed in the performance of the government of which we are a part. You know that old line that all the parties in the government say, which is “We were doing the right things, we just couldn’t get our message out”. You know, you’ve all heard that before. And that’s not the case. We were disappointing to you, we were disappointing to ourselves.

But the question that I asked myself when my 15 years in politics came to an end, is “why”, and I didn’t mean it as a rhetorical question. I meant that as a serious question that had to be addressed. First and foremost by New Democrats, because it was an NDP government, but also by I think Nova Scotians at large. Why is it that we were a disappointment? We weren’t a failure, we weren’t the worst government — that was the partisans on the other side say — but we weren’t better than the other guys. If you’re in the NDP, if you’re part of the NDP, if you’ve been in the NDP for as long as we have, you told yourself all those years that we were going to be better. And we weren’t. We just weren’t. We weren’t better. We weren’t worse, we just weren’t better.

So the question becomes “Why did that happen?” and it’s not like there’s a right answer to that question. This is why I think it’s so valuable that apparently my book provoked Howard to write his book. And I hope it provokes other people to write other accounts of the government, because the more stories we have, the more versions we have, the closer we are likely to get to a story that make sense to all of us, and [that] we can all live with, ad as Barbara says “move forward with.” Because at the end of the day it’s not about navel-gazing, it’s about how do we best move forward.

I think about another government that was loaded with talent and crashed after four years: the Savage government from the 1990’s. In fact, they crashed harder, arguably, than we did. People are still arguing, still debating about why that happened. What exactly did they accomplish, what went wrong? And I think that discussion, that debate is gonna go on about the Dexter government for just as long. Remember that the Savage government essentially came to an end when John Savage resigned. That was 1997. It’s getting close to twenty years ago, and people are still debating about the record of that particular government.

So at the end of my book I talk about three possible stories about what went wrong. They’re not mutually exclusive. There could be a little bit of truth in all of them. But that’s the discussion we need to have. That’s what I want to provoke tonight at your tables, among your friends, now and in the future. That debate about what happened, what went wrong ,what could we do better next time. And what I put my finger on in my book is what I call a political culture – a negative and destructive political culture, which I think captured the Dexter government. It certainly captured me. I’m not going to stand here and say to you that I was an angel or that I stood above it all, watching other people make mistakes. I was part of it. I was captured by the culture as much as anybody else.

In the book, I had a working title called ‘What I Learned About Politics.’ But right up to the very end it had a different working title and that was ‘The Rules of the Game.’ The only reason we changed this is my publisher said “You know if someone walks into a bookstore and sees a book called ‘The Rules of the Game’, it doesn’t tell them what it’s about.” So that’s why the biggest word in the biggest font is “politics”, okay.

(Audience Laughs)

But really it could’ve been called ‘The Rules of the Game. Because when you’re in politics for long enough, there’s a set rules you follow to survive and thrive. I’m not gonna go over them all now. They’re in the book. Those of you who’ve read the book are familiar with them. But the point is that the longer you’re in politics the more likely you are to follow the rules.

Frankly, I believe that’s what happened to the Dexter government. I know it happened to me. We were in opposition for so long that by the time the 2009 election rolled around, all we wanted to do was win. So we achieved our basic objective on election night. And after that we were making it up as we went along. It was the middle of a session, there was a lot going on, so we ended up being buffeted by bands like the MLA expense scandal and at the end of the four years, people were just not feeling better off. So out we went.

But then, I turn to Howard’s book and you get a very different account. Howard likes to describe my book as “amusing”. He means it to be insulting and that’s the way I take it (laughs).

(Audience Laughs)

It’s light, it’s fluffy, it’s frothy. Howard’s book is much more substantial on the policy. So chapter by chapter, whether it’s power or forestry or fisheries, he goes item by item by item on the policy, on the policy agenda — things that we did, things that we should have done. Howard’s thesis is that we would have been more successful if we were more true to our roots as New Democrats, and by the way, if we had better leadership. Now I’m very interested to hear a your views on that. I personally find that thesis unconvincing. And the simplest argument that I can give you is, look what’s happening around us.

I think it’s a bit narcissistic to look at the Dexter government and say it was all our fault, we have the wrong leader, the wrong people doing the wrong things. Because at the same time that we had one mandate and were thrown out, New Brunswick did it twice. Nothing to do with Darrell Dexter, nothing to do with the NDP. It’s easy to forget that exactly the same time that we were in office, Quebec did the same thing: one term government, thrown out after one term, and their Premier lost her seat on election night as well. Nothing to do with Dexter, nothing to do with the NDP. As soon as there’s an election in Newfoundland and Labrador, they’re going out [too]. You can take that to the bank, that government is toast. [With] PEI it wasn’t quite the same because it was a majority government — 41% of the vote, which in PEI usually earns you opposition — 20% of the vote went elsewhere, [somewhere] other than the two traditional parties. In ‘PEI terms’ that’ s a bit of a political earthquake. And oh my God, Alberta

(Audience Laughs Claps)

If any one of you had said six months ago that Alberta would have a majority NDP government, you would have been laughed out of the door. It would have been ridiculous. And yet here we are. Here we are, a political dynasty has been thrown out in Alberta. Let me just say that again: a majority NDP government in Alberta! Something is going on.The electorate is volatile. People are not happy with politics as usual.

And yet Howard says “No, no. It’s actually all Darrell’s fault”. I don’t think that. I don’t think that Howard said one single good thing about Darrell Dexter in the book. No, really. And when he says a good thing he takes it back before you get to the end of the sentence: “He’s a good man. He would have been a good cabinet minister, but he shouldn’t have been the Premier” – stuff like that. That’s not fair. That’s not fair. That’s not right.

My book is kind of a ‘warts and all’ thing.The whole story, I think, it’s the ‘warts and all’ about Darrell, ‘warts and all’ about Howard, ‘warts and all’ about me. Because I think that is a fuller and more accurate story. You didn’t come here tonight to have people read to you, but what I’m going to do is I’m gonna read a short passage from Howard’s book and I’m going to read a short passage from my book to illustrate what it is I’m talking about., then I’ll let Howard have the floor…

My book first. So here’s what I wrote. This is, for those of you who brought your copy or have bought one at the door, this is on page twenty. Here’s what I say about the NDP, the internal politics in the NDP.

“There are within the Nova Scotia NDP, two broad factions. They overlap, and individuals slide from one to the other, but there are two. One is moderate, pragmatic, centrist. The other is more contrarian, more ideological, less accommodating. Faction One sees Faction Two as inflexible, pushy troublemakers. Faction Two sees Faction One as weak, liberal sell-outs. Faction One is larger and almost always carries the day at party meetings, but Faction Two is louder.”

What I say in the book is that the epitome of Faction One is Darrell Dexter and the epitome of Faction Two is Howard Epstein

(Audience Claps)

So when you read Howard’s book, if you’re already there in that faction — The politer word that Howard uses is “wing”, the “progressive wing”. I prefer the word “faction”. I’m in a faction too, I don’t mean it in a pejorative way — the thing is that if you’re in that faction already, you’ll be thoroughly convinced by Howard’s book because you’re already there. But I’m not totally sure that it will convince anybody who’s not already there.

So Barbara tells me I’m out of time, so I’m actually not going to read from Howard’s book. I’ll let him do that. But here’s how I would sum up Howard’s book which, by the way, you should all read. Half of Howard’s book is ‘Yeah, that’s really solid analysis’.

There’s another quarter which is like ‘Okay, the facts are more or less accurate but that’s kind of a twisted interpretation of what it all meant’.

Then another quarter is like ‘oh my God, Howard that never happened’.

Now I could give a dozen examples. The section I was gonna read was a really clear example where Howard tells a story that, folks, is just not true. It ends up making Darrell look like a boob and Bill Estabrooks look like a liar, and neither of those things is true. It had to do with how Darrell was selected as interim leader of the party. But this I think is a problematic part of how Howard’s book is that he has a story he wants to tell and he shapes the facts to fit the story, rather than the other way around.

So let me conclude with this thought. That’s my take on my book. That’s what I think I’m writing about. That’s my take on Howard’s book. Look, there’s a lot of great stuff [in it] and partly I’m having fun here, jabbing him since he’s sitting right beside me here. But if you find neither of these versions convincing, write your own! Write your own story. Write a short version. Write a blog. Write something on Facebook. Write your own book if you think you can, because for the sake of the province we need to understand what happened, what went wrong with the Dexter government, because it definitely did go wrong. That’s the only way that we can all go forward together and fail better the next time.

Thank you.

(Audience Claps)

Mark Coffin: So that was Graham Steele at the event, Book Pub, that we hosted in the Spring of 2015, talking about his book “What I Learned About Politics.”

Up next was Howard Epstein but before we cut to Howard’s remarks, we wanted to bring you a message from one of the supporters to the Off Script podcast.

(Fun Music Plays)

The Off Script podcast is made possible by the listeners who help cover the costs it takes to bring these episodes to you each week.

This week’s featured supporter is Paul Black from Dartmouth. Here’s Paul, explaining why he supports the Off Script podcast.

Paul Black: Make no mistake. System of politics and government we have in Nova Scotia and in Canada: it’s archaic, it’s old, it needs fix, it needs to evolve. And how best to learn but from the people who used to run it as elected politicians, to draw important lessons and work on things that we can do to improve our democracy. That’s why I donate and I hope you’ll consider it, too.

Mark Coffin: Thank you to Paul and all the listeners who support the Off Script podcast.

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Okay, back to Book Pub – and here is Howard Epstein sharing some of the big ideas from his book, ‘Rise Again, Nova Scotia’s NDP on the Rocks’…

Howard Epstein: Well it’s a good thing I wore this jacket this evening, so you know who the good guy is. You wouldn’t otherwise have known as a result of the previous presentation.

First I want to thank the Springtide Collective for organizing this. This is really a great thing. It’s a bold group that operates under a model that talks about ‘making democracy bitter’.

It’s also a thrill to appear on stage with Graham, the estimable Graham Steele. He is such a talented person and a wonderful speaker. He is often featured at NDP events. I remember one event a number of years ago where Graham was the featured speaker and unfortunately it turned out that I was delayed at another event. I was a good three quarters of an hour late and as I came up to the hall, a fellow came out to have a little smoke break, I think. And I asked him if I was too late, if Graham was still speaking. He says “Oh yes, Graham is still talking”. I said “well what’s his speech about?” He says “I don’t know, he didn’t say”.

I think we have to get ready here for a little bit. [Takes off jacket and rolls up sleeves]

(Audience Claps)

I think out at the Mount (Mount Saint Vincent University) maybe even Barbara Imodies department, there are courses in remedial reading that are available so that people can learn how to read books and actually understand what they have to say.

Like Barbara I, too, am focused on the future. And I think that the future of politics in Nova Scotia are not just for the NDP, but the NDP is an important element in politics in the future of Nova Scotia, perhaps.

In my book, which is called ‘Rise Again,’ there is an implied question mark at the end of the title. It’s not so obvious to me that the NDP will rise again. We’re at avery precarious moment for the NDP, therefore a precarious moment in politics in Nova Scotia. Will we revert in some fashion to having simply a two party system? I hope that isn’t the case. I hope the NDP in fact thrives, but one of the things I do believe is that it’s necessary to have a good, honest look at what happened in the past, in order to build a base for going forward. If you don’t acknowledge what it is that went on in the past, if you don’t look at the errors that were made, if you don’t apologize — which I do in the book because no one else seems to be apologizing on behalf of the the party in the government — unless those things happen, unless there is a good, honest, hard look at what it is that went on in the past, there is really no opportunity to go forward in a rational way.

And I asked the question “What we need the NDP for?” Their is no rationale for having a third party in politics in Nova Scotia, or at the national level — be it at the NDP or anything else — unless that party is going to be different, and significantly different, than the others parties.

(Audience Claps)

What has traditionally happened in Canada and traditionally happened in Nova Scotia, was that governments changed every five or ten years between the Liberals and the Tories. So what would happen is that the voters would look at a government and they would say “That government is stale. That government is maybe borderline corrupt.” Maybe [they would say] “We’re just fed up with them”, maybe “We think their policies haven’t been all that successful.” Maybe just in general principles it’s a good idea to throw an old bunch out and get a new bunch in. So when you’re fed up with the Liberals, you can throw them out and get the Tories in. When you’re fed up with the Tories, you throw them out. So every five or ten years, that was the pattern.

Now every once in a while, that pattern would be different. In Alberta there were was 44 years of Tories, in Ontario they’re also 40 years of Tories before there were changes. But even given those anomalies, mostly at the national level and in most provinces, that’s what you got: switching back and forth between Liberal and Tory governments. It didn’t really make much difference, and of course the voters were pretty cynical about it. The whole rationale for the NDP is that we said to the voters “We’re not going to be like the Tories or the Liberals. We are different. We have a different set of policies, we’re edgier, we’re anticipating different things in the future. We’re on the side of ordinary Nova Scotians,” – used to be one of the mottos of are the NDP in opposition here. The party presented itself as being honest, open and accountable, and more likely to deliver a government that was going to be significantly different and identifiably different than the other parties in the past. We spent years in the opposition, building up the credibility of the party on precisely that basis. Alexa McDonough, in the years when she was the leader of the party, did wonderful work building up her personal credibility and the credibility of the NDP. She was joined by John Holm and a few other MLAs who managed to get themselves elected, and who did wonderful work during all that time. We built on that during the time when Robert Chisholm was the leader. And all those years were leading up to 1998, when we suddenly made a big jump forward and managed to elect 19 MLA’s. All of a sudden became a potent force in the electoral process in Nova Scotia. And building on on the credibility that Alexa had established and Robert had, we continued that and we kept saying to the public “We are going to do different things”.

Here is one of the main signals of how a party says that it has an agenda that it wants to pursue should it become the government.One of the main ways is to talk about the policies you would pursue by introducing bills when you’re in the opposition. I went back, and there’s a chapter in my book in which I look at all the bills that we introduced during the years when we were in opposition. I picked out almost 20 of them that are fascinating bills because they signal an agenda that the NDP had in mind, that voters should have been able to rely upon for an NDP government, should it ever come to that. One of my favourites is bill 76 from the fall of 1998, introduced by my colleague — we were both elected at the same time — Darrell Dexter. This was a bill that said the following thing: Before there are any more grants or loans to very large companies, there should be a value-for-money audit by the auditor general. In the meantime, there should be a moratorium on such grants and loans.

Pretty sensible position. But it, amongst many other things, disappeared from the agenda when we finally achieved power and became the government in 2009. What happened? Well you have to ask yourself why it was that we actually became the government in 2009. I think there are two reasons. As I understand it from conversations, listening to Darrell, listening to people in his inner circle, that they thought that there were two reasons.

On the first reason we agree. The first reason was [that] people were just fed up with the Tories. They had been the government for 10 years. Rodney MacDonald had succeeded John Hamm [and] Rodney was not seen as being all that successful as a Premier and voters were ready for change. Fine. First reason, everyone agrees.

[The] second reason: I believe that the main thing is that there was a thirst out there amongst the voters for profound change in the way politics were being done. I think that is not what Darrell believed. Darrell, during the years when he was the leader, really worked hard to move the party to what he considered a general ‘centre’ in which the party looked more like the Liberals and Tories. It wasn’t that all of a sudden, after 2009 we became the government, that there was this change. It was being signaled for several years in advance of that. You could see it coming. This happened because there was a drive for power. There was a drive to win government. The theory was that you won government by looking like everybody else, by being unthreatening, by not being traditional social democrats, unfortunately. That is the theory that prevailed. That in fact is the government that we delivered. In fact, it was even worse than that.

That — just to jump ahead to 2013 — explains in my view much of why it is that we lost so badly in 2013. You heard Graham say ‘It wasn’t that we were really worse than other governments, we were kinda like other governments’. That was the problem. The problem was the contrast. The problem was that we had promised something different when we were in the opposition; not just that in a mushy sense we would be better, but that we had a particular set of policies that we were going to follow through with and that we were going to implement if we ever had the chance. We had done good work when we were in the opposition and we continued to do some good things when we were in the government, but by and large, it wasn’t what the NDP had promised over the years in opposition. It was that contrast; it was that stark contrast between what it was we had said for years and years that the NDP stood for and during those four years, what we actually delivered.

One of prime examples of course, would be things like a large number of dollars going to support the Irving shipyard contract. [That’s] big money, big money! You can argue the toss about whether this was necessary. The feds clearly required that there was going to be some kind of provincial support. I read all their documents, it’s not at all clear to me that they required anything in the range of that money, or that it [even] had to be money. But this happened, the government decided to do that. And that didn’t sit well with the voters of Nova Scotia who, as they saw at the same time open hands toward the Irvings and virtually every other large corporation in Nova Scotia. They saw cutbacks in education and they saw cutbacks in things that they valued as services that the government should have been delivering. It was that contrast between the largess directed at very large corporations and the austerity agenda with respect to public services that not only bothered the voters, but it particularly bothered them with respect to an NDP government. That, I think, explains what happened when it came to 2013.

But you have to look at the votes in 2013 as well. The NDP got 27% of the vote. The Liberals in fact didn’t get a majority of the votes, they got something like 47-48% of the votes. If we had a proportional representation system of course, there would be a minority Liberal government — there wouldn’t be a majority Liberal government. But at 27% of the votes, we only elected seven MLAs, with about the same number of votes — slightly fewer — than the Tories. They elected I think 12 or 13 MLAs. They got about twice as many MLAs as we did. That’s the vagaries of the first-past-the-post system. But that means, to my mind, that there is still potentially a viable three party system in Nova Scotia. The problem for the NDP is, will we be able to continue that? Will we really hold on to that 27% and build on it?

This is a precarious moment for our party because at the moment, membership is down, money is down, organization is very spotty around many constituencies in the province and we have no permanent leader. We’re about to start looking for a leader, it’ll take another year to sort that out.

The soul of the party is going to be fought over. The nature of the battle is going to have to do with who is chosen as the next leader of the party. So looking into the future for the NDP, it’s not so clear where we’re going to go. If it turns out that we get Version Two Darrell Dexter as the next leader of the party, I don’t think it’s gonna do as much good. We’ll probably be looking at the kind of scenario that the NDP has faced in Ontario where, after the one-term Bob Rae government, it’s been now more than 20 years and the NDP is still not another government.

I don’t want to be understood as suggesting that you have to win power and form a government in order to be effective — which is a very important point to remember. During the years when we were the opposition and we faced minority government of the liberals or the Tories, we were able to maneuver, [to] pressure those governments in ways that achieved very useful things. Things that were traditionally the NDP values, whether they had to do with the tax system or benefits for seniors or environmental matters, we were able to accomplish those even though we weren’t the government. I’m all in favour of having an NDP government, but it has to be worthwhile to have that NDP government. It has to really be an NDP government. But at the same time, it is possible to adhere to the traditional values that we have espoused as a party and also be politically effective. That can best happen through not just adhering to our values [but] speaking out about them, electing people, and pressuring governments to come through with the kinds of policies that are NDP policies. Because I think they also reflect what it is that many voters in Nova Scotia traditionally believe.

They believe in minimizing social inequality. They believe in a healthy environment. They believe in supporting education at all levels.

They didn’t like it when there was abuse of the expenses system. They didn’t like it when there were huge handouts to corporations. So I think that those kinds of things, which many people inside the party continue to adhere to, will serve us well as we go into the future. So, thank you.

(Audience Claps)

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. The voice you just heard was Howard Epstein.

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.

In the meantime we are going to continue sharing more special episodes like this. And next week that episode will be the next part of this discussion, where Howard and Graham take questions from the audience, and debate one another.



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