This week, we’ll unpack how a cabinet minister’s office works, and dig into:
– how people who held that office who approached making decisions,
– the kind of decisions they had to make,
– the ways caucus was involved (or excluded) from cabinet-level decision making, and
– how the rest of Cabinet and the Premier’s office would be involved in decisions.

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Episode Transcript

How former Nova Scotia Cabinet Ministers approached their jobs

This episode of On the Record, Off Script is supported in part by Hello Fresh.

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In the last episode of Off Script, we began talking about how decision-making works in our government. We talked about how MLAs, in either government or opposition, approach getting decisions made in their favor. Decisions on things that need to land on the legislature floor, and decisions things that just need to be decided within government — by a senior civil servant, or a deputy minister or minister.

This week, we’ll start to unpack how a minister’s office works — how people who held that office who we spoke to approached making decisions, and the kind of decisions they had to make, how they did (or did not) involve caucus in their decision making, and we’ll touch on how the rest of cabinet and the premier’s office would be involved in decisions that fell under one minister’s portfolio.

We’re not going to get too deep into that last point, because that’ll be the topic for next week’s episode.

For today, we start with the Ministers themselves.

Maurice Smith: When I first started people would bring things in for me to sign and I would say, “leave it there and I’ll get to it.”

“Oh no, this needs to be signed quickly, people are waiting on this.”

And I said, “well, I’ll get to it when I can.”

“Why didn’t you just sign it?”

“I haven’t read it.”

“Oh, you don’t have to read it!”

And I said, “I’m going to sign it, and you don’t want me to read it?” And she says, “No, no, no, this is just routine stuff.”

Mark Coffin: Maurice Smith was a one time MLA, and served as a backbencher until late in the term of Darrell Dexter’s NDP government. He was appointed to cabinet about a year and a half before the government called the election that would mark its defeat. Maurice — or Mo, as he likes to be called — was the minister of transportation and infrastructure renewal.

Maurice Smith: I said, well at least I’m going to read a few of them to see what I’m signing. Well, after that, there’s nothing that came across my desk that I didn’t read. The number of typos and the number of glaring errors that I saw on these things were absolutely astounding. I got a reputation for someone who, you had to do it right or I’d sent it back. I kept sending things back and eventually somebody would come to me and say, “well, why did you do that?” and I would say, “because it’s wrong.”

“Well, this is just an internal document.”

I’d say, “I don’t care what it is, I’m not putting my name on it, I know it’s wrong.

“Yeah, but this is going to slow us down.”

I’m thinking, well then do it right!

Mark Coffin: Mo’s story is unique in some respects. He took the rote elements of the job more seriously than many of the other cabinet ministers we heard from in our interviews.

But in other respects, his story represents two of the things we heard about a lot. The first is simply the amount of rote and routine work that cabinet as a group, and as individual ministers, are consumed with. The second is a mindset that many of the ministers found themselvse in — the mindset of someone seeing their responsibilties as primarily about reviewing and deciding on matters that came to them.

A few ministers, by contrast, told us about going out of their way to initiate work — new programs, new policy agendas, some on their own initiative, and some on the request of their premier. By and large, what we heard about was ministers acting as deciders, judges on the matter that was on their desk.

Here’s Mo Smith talking about the kinds of decisions that would include.

Maurice Smith: I’ll just give you an example. I was transportation minister and infrastructure renewal, so lots of leases. I’d look at a lease, and they could have the “leasor” and the “leasee” but have them reversed. The actual opposite of what it should be.

Mark Coffin: These routine decisions, decisions that came to a specific cabinet minister, and came to them regularly to be decided upon, were common in every portfolio. For the most part, they weren’t particularly interesting, but some of them were quite heavy decisions.

Francene Cosman: My first day on the job as minister of community services, just after I was sworn in, my new deputy minister tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘You must immediately come over to the office.

Mark Coffin: Francene Cosman was the minister of community services under John Savages Liberal government.

Francene Cosman: “We have a court case on right now, we’re taking a child into custody and the judge has to have the papers signed by you, the minister.’ That was my introduction to my new job.

I walked over to the office, i reviewed the file, signed the papers, the child was taken out of parental custody and taken into care. It was a shock to me to realize, ‘Oh my God. That’s my job.’ Welcome to the job.

Mark Coffin: Anytime a child was taken into custody, you would have been?

Francene Cosman: Only if it went through a ministerial order before a judge, which this case was. It did come back to haunt me a few years later on another case where the man who was abusing his child went to prison, and when he got out he came after me. I had to have hired guards at my house for a while because he threatened to kill me. I had to keep the drapes closed. So it was a job that had all sorts of really significant issues to manage.

Mark Coffin: Not everything would be coming from inside the department. As minister of transportation, one of the groups he was lobbied by was Canadian Tire.

Maurice Smith: Let’s say, for example, Canadian Tire came wanting me to make sure that all winter tires were studded, because they wanted to sell tires, so there would be a delegation.

Mark Coffin: One of Mo’s colleagues, Ramona Jennex, who was the minister of education, told us about how she approached entertaining the proposals that landed on her desk.

Ramona Jennex: I didn’t refuse meeting with any group. I met with a number of associations that are associated with education and I also made sure that I met with the school boards on a regular basis, and I was always in communication with the chairs of the school boards. I met with anyone that asked. There was no one that I refused to meet with in education.

Mark Coffin: In terms of the ideas that come at you, it must be overwhelming. I mean, people say, “We think you should do this. We think you should do that.” Is there a formula for handling that?

Ramona Jennex: There is. I have a tool that I carry with me all of the time, and the tool is “who benefits?” Every time someone is saying something to me, I am asking “who’s benefiting?” If i’m hearing something that I can definitely see that kids are going to benefit from, I’m listening. If I’m hearing that someone is out to make money, that they’re going to benefit… because people were trying to make money. I’d get a lot of that. Or, they wanted their book in the school; they’re benefiting financially. If it didn’t benefit the children, I didn’t take it any further. So that was my tool, “who benefits?” If I could see benefits for our students, then I would proceed with the idea.

Mark Coffin: This mindset of ministers acting simply on what came to them, rather than initiating something new, popped up relatively early as we were conducting these interviews with former cabinet ministers. In one of our later interviews, with Graham Steele, another colleague of Mo and Ramona, I shared a bit about what we were finding, and got his take on it.

Mark Coffin: One of the things in these interviews is that a lot of MLAs think of themselves as judges, there’s no real vision about their role, it’s just sort of like they think, “this came to me and I made the right decision.”

Graham Steele: I can see that. Basically, you become a prisoner of what comes in front of you. If you get into the job without a specific idea of what you want to accomplish, you [don’t] wake up every morning saying, “how am I going to advance that objective of what I got into politics for?” then you are doing what’s coming at you. That’s certainly true of casework in the constituency, it’s certainly true as a cabinet minister.

My experience has been — in all governments, not just ours — is that cabinet ministers are completely prisoners of their schedules. They end up being really, really busy, they’re running all the time, but there’s no overall purpose or objective. They’re just trying to keep their head above water. Somebody else is setting up their calendar and deciding who they’re meeting with and what they’re meeting about.

Mark Coffin: In some cases, ministers were given clear direction from the premier about the priorities they should focus on.

This usually came in the form of a mandate letter. While we know most cabinet ministers get them when they are appointed to cabinet, only a a few ex-cabinet ministers we interviewed, actually brought them up when we asked them about how they approached their jobs.

Jamie Muir:  Don’t forget that we did away with the health boards that John Savage had put in place.

Mark Coffin: Jamie Muir was a cabinet minister in John Hamm and Rodney MacDonald’s Progressive Conservative governments.

Jamie Muir: I went in there, and you get these letters from the premier and he says, “this is what our priorities for the department are.”

Mark Coffin: A mandate letter?

Jamie Muir: A mandate letter, that was one of them. One was to set up those localized health authorities again. Another one was to try and get some handle on long-term care – which we did.

Mark Coffin: Some ministers engaged the caucuses they came from on major decisions that were coming through while others didn’t.

The trend we heard about has been that over time, caucuses have been less and less engaged on the decisions coming down from individual cabinet ministers and the premier’s office. Here’s an example of what that engagement would have looked like in the late 90s.

Wayne Adams: Everything came to caucus. So caucus had a say, they had an idea of what was going on.

Mark Coffin: Wayne Adams, a former liberal MLA, and environment minister, brought to caucus the idea of adding a ten cent deposit onto glass and plastic bottles to incentivize people to return them to a recycling depot for a five cent refund.

Wayne Adams: No one really knew how that 10 cents was going to [mean they] get 5 cents back. They figured, we take 10 cents we should give 10 cents back. I said, “Well, it’s what we’re going to do with the money. We’re going to generate a whole lot of work for 5 cents. They couldn’t really see through that. Certainly after that, they could all see through it because they all wanted to have a depot in their backyard. It became worth it for them.

Mark Coffin: So caucus was initially disinterested, but what brought them on board?

Wayne Adams: The premier, basically. Because he thinks it was the right thing to do, and we started it with the school kids. We had staff members go to the schools and talk about things like recycling and waste and what they think was a good idea, gave them ideas that the kids might be delighted with this. I made a few appearances here and there, then we had focus groups all around the province, whether that be the Lion’s Club or a church group or have a focus group spearhead it, we would go out and facilitate it, talk to people, get their ideas on what we wanted to do. And quite frankly, we had a major consensus of agreement before we announced it.

Mark Coffin: The way that decision played out, and the way it was engaged with caucus, is worth noting. We heard that a lot that caucus would push back on a decision, and that ultimately there was a combination of those in cabinet listening to caucus, but also selling members of caucus on why what they were bringing them was a good decision to begin with, and finding a way to bring caucus along, which is the situation Wayne described.

Percy Paris, a former minister of several portfolios including economic development in Darrell Dexter’s NDP cabinet, admitted that engaging caucus in decision-making was something that he wasn’t initially inclined to prioritize.

Percy Paris: When we first started — and I like to think we got better at it -— we, as cabinet ministers, were making decisions without caucus input. That’s at the very beginning. Cabinet ministers get so caught up in what their responsibilities are, and they’ve got to make decisions. What I experienced was that there was a whole other group that make up the caucus but aren’t cabinet ministers, that had no input into that decision.

I didn’t realize it until caucus pointed it out. And I said “you know, they’re right. Even though we’re cabinet ministers, it’s not just us. We have to include caucus as well.” So I started referring things to caucus for their input. Then, what I found, is that I’ve already made my mind up as [far as] which was the best direction for this decision to go, and I would take that to caucus looking for their input. But I sort of already had my mind made up. So, my goal then was “now I’ve got to present this. It’s not finalized yet because I need caucus input, so gee I hope I can sway them to think the way that I’m thinking.”

Mark Coffin: At the end of the day, caucus doesn’t have any decision-making authority over matters of the provincial government. It’s a part of the party structure.

Nothing needs to be vetted by caucus.

Whether it’s an issue being brought by a low-ranking cabinet minister or the Premier, the positions taken by caucus are non-binding. If a cabinet minister brings an issue to caucus, they do it for their own reasons.  

Perhaps they feel an obligation to do so, or they’re worried about a caucus revolt, or they genuinely believe that doing so will allow them to do their jobs better.

The more powerful presence that an individual cabinet minister had to concern themselves with was that of the Premier and his (it’s always been a ‘he’ in Nova Scotia) staff. After all, the premier decides who sits in cabinet, and he can show you the door.

Here’s Mo Smith on his experience trying to move on something forward through his office and how the Premier’s Office would involve themselves.

Maurice Smith: If a department wanted to do something —  and I don’t know if this is the same everywhere because this was my first time being in government —  but my personal experience was that there was absolutely too too much Premier’s Office control over everything. If I wanted to write a letter as the minister of transportation on an issue a draft would come to me, I might want to make some changes, it would go back, and then it would go to the Premier’s Office, and it would come back and they’d say, “you can’t say that.” Or do this, and do that, and then the corrections were made and it had to go back again —  five days go by, and the issue you wanted to talk about is now moot now.

There a couple of issues, like the clear-cutting one, and the one about cuts to education where the ministers themselves didn’t go along with what the plan was going to be, and 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 for. John MacDonell was taken out of natural resources because he wasn’t supportive of the final clear-cutting issue.

They were given other portfolios. They were just moved, it was just that they couldn’t live with what was being suggested.

Mark Coffin: It was uncommon for us to  hear about the Premier’s Office being disinterested in what actions were being taken within the minister’s offices. They weren’t interested in the rote type of work that Mo described earlier, the kind of work where the decisions were unlikely to be different from one government to the next. The kind of work that a whole government would end up wearing as a part of their reputation, was the kind of work the Premier’s Office was interested in.

One exception to this, was a reflection shared with us by Mark Parent, a former environment minister under Rodney MacDonald’s progressive conservative government.

Mark Parent: Rodney had these problems, and there was sort of a vacuum. For a very short time, the environment and ministry I held sort of led the charge on everything. The deputy minister for Rodney was a friend of my deputy minister’s so really, for about two years I really had the fortune of running the thing because of Rodney’s personal life.

Mark Coffin: Mark Parent credited his ability to usher in a landmark piece of legislation  in part  due to the vacuum in leadership at the Premier’s Office, and having more free reign than he otherwise would have had under usual circumstances

Mark Parent: Prior to the Ivany report, there’d been another report that said, “What can Nova Scotia do to prosper?” and one of the things they thought was the sort of green economy would be something that we could move in and so there was this recognition across the influential people in society within the cabinet, within the civil service and then I brought it to cabinet but as I said, there was a vacuum so in a vacuum there’s an opportunity to say, “What’s going to be the face of our government, what are we going to do that’s going to be distinctive, how are we going to get the economy going?”

I said, “this is a great document, why have we never worked at this as a government?” And they said, “because really we don’t have political support for it.” The civil servants were ready. They saw that it was a time of sustainability, when people realised you couldn’t have a vibrant economy without caring for the environment, that it was one of the pillars of your economy.

Mark Coffin: Eventually, the work the Mark Parent would do in trying to act on this particular file would turn into the Environmental Goals and Sustainable Prosperity Act —  something that had a strong amount of support, not only from parties on all sides of the legislature, but also from civil society groups outside of the legislature.

Mark’s story is more the exception of how a cabinet minister in Nova Scotia carries out their duties, than it is the rule. We share it so there’s some contrast in what was the dominant role that cabinet ministers played that we heard about —  the role of decider.

Most don’t end up initiating big, bold projects that the Premier doesn’t ask them to take on, and where the Premier’s office doesn’t have some ongoing involvement in shaping and controlling it.

On this week’s show, and on last week’s show, we’re bound to leave you with more questions than answers. Because at the end of the day, decision-making in government isn’t straightforward. We know what happens in public, when a bill is introduced in the legislature, or when a new program or service is announced; but from talking to the MLAs we’ve spoken to, we also know that what we see in public is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to understanding the truth about how decisions from within the provincial government are actually made.

So next week, we’ll cover the final chapter in our dive inside of how power works in a government in Nova Scotia.

We’ll talk about the how cabinet meetings work, how they’ve evolved over time, from John Savage, in the mid-nineties, all the way up to present day, and hear from a former cabinet minister from Stephen McNeil’s cabinet. We’ll explore how the premier, and their staff, shape what happens at a cabinet meeting. What’s on the table, and what’s not. That’s next week on On the Record, Off Script.

That’s this week episode of Off Script, thanks for listening. If you haven’t subscribed yet, be sure to do so. You can do it in Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher or any of the other podcast-catching apps.

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We’ll be back with a new episode next week. We’ve only got a handful of episodes left in the story of former MLAs that we’re telling. After that, I’m curious what people currently listening to the show would find interesting.

Springtide is committed to helping people lead and make change in politics with their integrity intact. We’re looking to broaden our scope and our audience, to people who are interested in politics, but more than what happens in the legislature.

Shortly, we’ll be coming out with a podcast called Govern Yourself Accordingly, which is meant to reach a much broader audience than Nova Scotia. We’re also interested in keeping what we’re doing in Nova Scotia alive and supported through this podcast.

So if you’re in Nova Scotia and there are things you want to learn or hear about, conversations you’d like to listen in on, we want to know what would be helpful for your own engagement and awareness that you can bring into your political life here in Nova Scotia.

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