When I was a little kid and got sick while visiting my grandparents in Pictou County it was Dr. John Hamm who came to visit. Through fevers, croup, mumps, measles, chicken pox, and a nail through my lip; after the home remedies, baby aspirin, calamine lotion, iodine, Mercurochrome, vicks vap-o-rub, and vaporizers with fryer's balsam failed to get results it was Dr. Hamm who was called. The thing I remember most is his calm kindness and the scientific approach he would take to the problem - testing, measuring, writing. He took responsibility.
Many years went by and I was only slightly aware of politics when I heard he had been elected premier.
On a warm summer night in August 1999 I was walking on the waterfront near the ferry terminal. It was after midnight and just a few weeks after he was elected. There was an almost phosphorescent mist on the flat calm harbour that glowed in a bright blue moonlight. Standing there at the water edge, alone, in a Harrington Jacket (the kind James Dean wore) was Dr. Hamm.
He was just standing looking out. It was a beautiful night. But I was really struck by how alone he was. You could feel it. It's funny now but I was thinking how can someone as important as the premier just be alone - is this terrible? dangerous?, shouldn't his 'people' be with him. Is this his version of Trudeau’s walk in the snow?
It kind of got my interest up. In the following weeks I listened on the radio and eventually went to some sort of presentation where he laid out his plan as far as he had it worked out. Looking back now I can read all sorts of classical economics, ideology, and politics into it but I don’t think any of that was actually there. He just came in to office with the same scientific approach he took to working out my kid sick symptoms, and made his diagnosis.
"This is how much we have to spend", he said, as I remember it; "we should spend more of it on education and health care and less on economic development schemes". And that’s what he did. And those were good times in Nova Scotia. And they were good times with a genuinely balanced budget. Dr. Hamm was, and is, a “conservative progressive”, and a gentle heart, but with the presence of mind, the scientific method, to be responsible and genuinely lead a government. He surrounded himself with others as close to that as he could find. He asked them to be responsible. He asked for more responsibility from the health care system. A couple elections passed and we got into talking about Sunday shopping and public car insurance, and Nova Scotia was generally distracted. Premier Hamm retired. I think he was distracted too and believed the principled thing to do was leave.
The idea that came around next was that it would be good to have a young person as premier. That seemed like a good idea and we tried it. Then we tried the idea of an NDP government; something that Robert Chisholm had lead the way to earn but like Moses he never saw the promised land. Then we went back and tried the Liberals because, well we have liberal values and the name of the party is Liberal right?
But something happened after Dr. Hamm retired. One government has looked very much like the last. It’s the lack of dynamic change and absence of new ideas that has been the hallmark of government over the last while. I believe that flows from the lack of responsibility among elected officials. At best, they’ve assigned responsibility to the bureaucracy. At worst they’ve made the entire system irresponsible.
“Prevaricate” means to speak falsely or misleadingly; deliberately misstate or create an incorrect impression. There’s a whole basket of words like this including dissimulate, dissemble and equivocate. They’re all things people do when they want to avoid responsibility.
One of the best ways to avoid responsibility is to push it off to others, and into the future or the past, to divide it down into small forgettable pieces.
Adm HG Rickover, USN famously said, “Responsibility is a unique concept... You may share it with others, but your portion is not diminished. You may delegate it, but it is still with you... If responsibility is rightfully yours, no evasion, or ignorance or passing the blame can shift the burden to someone else. Unless you can point your finger at the person who is responsible when something goes wrong, then you have never had anyone really responsible.” In other words, if more than one person is responsible then no one is responsible.
There’s been a notable decline in responsibility in government. Elected folks, wanting nothing more so than to stay elected, know that not being responsible will get them to their goal of power, pension or whatever... they go along to get along. They use boards, commissions, reports, consultants, and even the opposition to push off responsibility.
But it’s a sense of responsibility we need.
To be responsible in a principled way is to be willing to lose. That’s the only way to change the rules of the game… by playing by a different set of rules until you win. A politician afraid of losing or leaving their position is of little good to the people. In fact maybe that's the defining feature of a politician. A citizen can run for office, be a good citizen, do a term in public service. Lots of good-hearted people do all this for the right reasons. They become a politician when they're afraid to lose.
Dr. Savage once told me that being a politician should not be the best job you ever had. This is why.
Being willing to lose gives you the freedom to do real good.
Dr. Hamm, like Dr. Savage before him, was willing to be responsible - willing to lose or leave on principal. You don’t have to agree with their policies, ideas or outcomes to agree they led a functioning system, which we have now lost.
The unwillingness to act and to accept responsibility rises from self-satisfaction with the status quo, a secret hope that everything will stay exactly the same. In the oxymoronic language of modern politics it’s often those calling loudest for “change” that are most entrenched in the past, in the old ways of doing things. Their sense of the responsibility to do the job right is outdone by their need to keep the job. And without our elected representatives standing for something the system of democracy, of deciding, is cast adrift. Our direction is lost in a mumbo jumbo of reports, committees, consultation and prevarication. The horizon is blank, there are no islands of ideas, and one government looks very much like the last.
Responsible to whom?
In spite of our abundance, how far we’ve come, and all we have, we need to seek out those who can imagine more and better, those increasingly dissatisfied with the problems and excesses of the day, the weakest and most vulnerable among us, those still on the outside looking in, the ones not numerous or powerful enough to make a difference, the ones outside of wealth’s golden circle. These are the people who can show us the way. By acting and behaving responsibly toward them, by raising them up, we increase our society and make it a better place for the rising generation of the future.
Writing about life, citizenship, and Nova Scotia.