“It is not our politicians who will lead the change. The only person who can change our politics is the engaged citizen.” Graham Steele
The Best Of Times and The Worst Of Times
The title quote is from Graham Steele's "Back To Balance" initiative where in 2010 the new Finance Minister traveled our rural regions and asked regular people to come out to ad hoc evening meetings and solve the problem of government spending more money than it was taking in.
I have a friend who used to ask, "How are you going to change the world if you can't find your keys?"
How did it come to this?
Following a tumultuous end to the Buchanan years that lingered with caretakers until 1993, the Liberal party returned to government in Nova Scotia. The 90's were punctuated by the efforts of Dr. John Savage. He tried to return to progressive values and bring the too big, too wasteful, too slow, government into check. He was sabotaged by his own party elites.
He resigned rather than fight his own party. He lost his wife to cancer. He was diagnosed with cancer himself and, rather than waste away, the last I saw him, not long before he died, he was on his way across the world on a Doctors Without Borders Mission. Just an amazing person.
It's very sad that the people of Nova Scotia never got to have their say about Dr. Savage and his vision for Nova Scotia at the polls. Probably the greatest missed opportunity of our generation. And it's surprising in hindsight that there was so little uproar about his political execution.
In this Welsh doctor we found the kind of technocrat that the early Progressives dreamed of.
It Started By Accident
The Nova Scotia Liberal Party was having its annual general meeting in Dartmouth in February 1992. Savage attended a session of the meeting to bring greetings from the City of Dartmouth, in his capacity as its mayor. Little did he realize that the party's rank and file were about to oust their long-time leader, Vince McLean. He was approached to run for the Liberal leadership and was soon premier.
With everything coming up sixes and sevens in provincial politics these days and everyone speaking out about the lack of vision, leadership and accountability in government it is worth revisiting what Dr. Savage tried to do and what got him killed politically.
I was there and saw it happen. At the time it made me swear to myself to never get involved in politics. Now it seems like the best reason in the world for getting involved in politics. I wonder if the people of Nova Scotia are ready to revisit his ideas... and his mistakes?
Where we now seem to be lacking in ideas, Dr. Savage was full of them.
John Savage is quoted below from a speech given in Toronto explaining his plan shortly after his election as premier. He laid out the incredible scope of his vision and his courage. It also sealed his fate.
“But to achieve our cost-cutting goals, programmes will be eliminated. There is no other way. In the weeks and months ahead, we face tough decisions.
We must maintain and improve delivery of those services Nova Scotians, indeed all Canadians, value most. Necessity demands that we eliminate, or fundamentally alter, the remainder. In Nova Scotia, an uncompromising review of every aspect of government is well advanced.
We have initiated management audits in seven major departments. They are being conducted by outside accountants with no vested interests. Only two have been completed so far, but already, the process is uncovering a maze of inefficiency, needless red tape, isolated bureaucratic empires, high stress, low morale, dismal productivity--in short, broken government, and an inefficient, rule-driven bureaucracy that is completely ill-adapted to respond to the demands of a world in transition.
The solutions include cutting out layers of bureaucracy; wholesale elimination of departments, agencies and divisions; decentralized decision-making; new management ideas and radically altered attitudes. It won't be easy.
Establishing working structures and systems to replace stifling bureaucratic controls is only half the equation--the easy half. Changing attitudes, altering the very culture of the public sector will be more difficult. The days of guaranteed job security, regardless of performance are gone. Productivity, creativity and flexibility will be requirements for success in the public sector, just as they are in private business. We will be hiring more senior managers on term contracts; bringing people in from the private sector to do a specific job. This would allow constant renewal, new ideas, new styles, a more vibrant workplace. Changes of this magnitude are frightening, there is no question. But they are also a source of new hope.”
That's a vision.
Savaged and Left Adrift
Dr. Savage government also led the country in the creation of tougher anti-smoking legislation, consolidation of school boards and local health authorities, creation of the Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Centre, the establishment of one of the most modern emergency health services in North America along with province-wide emergency field communications systems.
Dr. Savage waged a tough and ultimately successful fight against an entrenched patronage system in the provincial Department of Transportation and Public Works, as well as within his own political party.
His anti-patronage policies caused the made men in the backrooms of his party to conspire against him. In its editorial page on March 22, 1997, The Globe and Mail, after citing his list of reforms, called him "the best premier in a generation," and berated both Liberal party members and the public for forcing him to resign.
The Progressive Conservatives returned with their own technocrat, Dr. John Hamm was elected premier in 1999. After taking office, Hamm returned to the Progressive era ideals and what had worked in the Stanfield era for Nova Scotia. He invested more in education and health care. Like Dr. Savage, he took on the waste, mistakes and inefficiency of the Buchanan days, closing and selling government-owned industries such as Sydney Steel and introducing tax cuts that, though modest, were understood and appreciated by most people. That gave a boost to the economy. Unlike Dr. Savage, he was part of a party ready to embrace these ideas and it turned out the public liked this country doctor's style too.
His government also passed tough lobbyist registration legislation, introduced smoking cessation initiatives, provided new funding for community college modernization - more education - and achieved historically high economic growth and employment numbers. His government was the first to truly balance provincial finances in 25 years in 2002. He retired from his public service in 2006 after 10 years in the party - never becoming a career politician.
The party continued for yet another term under Rodney MacDonald. But again, like the Buchanan era, too long in government, too much waste and inefficiency, combined with a lack of ideas and ideals. “Mistakes”, as they say in government, “were made.” The province, along with all its political parties was adrift.
What Exactly Is Wrong?
The change needed to bring the inefficiency, bad deals, waste, and bureaucratic elites of government into check never went as far as it should have done. Each party in turn offered up expensive solutions but was never able to articulate the actual problem. Worse, each party’s capacity to stand up to and mange the layer of permanent bureaucratic elite that held sway in Halifax got weaker with every new election.
Even a commission led by Ray Ivany was not able to explain to Nova Scotians exactly what the problem was and what our goal should be. Nova Scotia was left with a Mousetrap game of expensive, distracting and quarrelsome means goals running this way and that to what end no one was sure. Many are discouraged, disengaged, and suspicious of government of all stripe. Meanwhile the bureaucratic fiefdoms grow bigger and stronger.
Though it’s easy to see the fault in bureaucracy truth is we need it. The bureaucracy is the arm of governments needed to honestly carry out the policies and paths defined by our elected representatives. But democracy is called self-government for a reason. If we defer decisions of the day to bureaucratic professionals it’s not really democracy.
Government By Bureaucratic Elite
Government by bureaucratic elite is the biggest issue Nova Scotia faces today as one of the first truly mature democracies in all of modern history. It is the cause of the lack of dynamic change in Nova Scotia and the reason why one recent government looks very much like the last - no matter what party or political stripe. Far from being behind, we are on the very cutting edge. How we proceed from here will impact the fate of the whole world. The stakes are very high. Unfortunately, the modern bureaucratic professional has the advantage. They can commit themselves fulltime to their mischief. They are astonishingly well paid, unfirable, unaccountable, mostly unnamed. They know the words and the tricks of the trade and they can play a long game that a citizen representative elected for four years at most can only dream of. They enjoy the benefits of being specialists. Their training is superior. They can devoted themselves fully to their interests where the elected citizen is torn between competing interests. And most of all, in our modern society that so respects experts in all fields, no matter how well or passionately a citizen makes their case the bureaucrat, clothed in all the dignity and respect of their office can simply brush the often angry and self-interested citizen aside and say a few professional junk words, quote an internal study or review, may toss out a few numbers, and demand to be respected.
Time To Revisit The Parties
The only solution is to rebuild parties with management tools needed, powered by the ideals and vision that animated the progressives, to stand up to big power. These parties need to be supported not by this or that corporate, powerful, organizational or union interest but by regular households. Maybe in the end Mr. Steele is right. It is up to citizens... but in directly in making better parties, being less divisive (we're all in this together) and choosing better candidates.
With a clear end goal in mind it matters less if any particular means goals we have succeed or fail as much as it matter that the process by which decisions are made is managed well. It’s amply proven that we can afford to make mistakes – lots of them - but we can’t afford to lose self-government.
Writing about life, citizenship, and Nova Scotia.