Is Nova Scotia political culture changing for the better?

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It was just a little back-page story this week: "MLAs finally approve new rules for House." Big deal, right? Actually, yes -- not the changed rules, mind you, but the fact that after years of bickering the measure went through unanimously and the government miraculously accepted amendments from the opposition, which, in turn, was miraculously upbeat about it.

So what's going on? Is the devil dead, releasing our politicians from their obligation to sneer and snarl, or what?

In reality, our politics and political attitudes are changing, although in a back-page kind of way -- that is, in a manner too slow and complex for the public's short attention span to notice. New rules passed without acrimony is merely one example.

Amid the toil and trouble which is Nova Scotia politics, I've been watching the omens for some time.

The first signal was when the NDP took to co-operating with John Hamm's Tory minority government (2003-05), largely under pressure from a public tired of useless bickering, and a number of things got done. Then when the Environmental Goals and Sustainable Prosperity Act was passed unanimously in 2007 under the otherwise embattled Rodney MacDonald government.

Now there's the Ivany report on our economic miseries. In a lifetime of eyeballing reports, I've never seen one take on such a sustained life. With its call for a unified political approach, it has become an iconic reference point for any discussion on economic and political reform. Former finance minister Graham Steele is even proposing a ten-year "unity government" with the Ivany report "in its entirety" as its platform.

Other inquiries -- Doelle-Lahey on aquaculture, Wheeler on fracking (and earlier, John Ross on health care) -- functioning under intense public scrutiny and dealing with the need to improve our regulations and practices, have gone harder and deeper into their subjects than normal, implicitly rejecting politics as they are.

The same with the long natural resources review process -- so far frustrated in its effect, but all of these cumulatively are hauling the wagon forward as we struggle to get out of the swamp.

Then there's Steele's book, What I Learned About Politics. That, too, is a phenomenon beyond itself, delivering our bad political culture its hardest shot yet.

Let me say this about Steele. In my 40-odd years of watching Nova Scotia politics up close, I've only come across two people capable of publicly explaining the inner workings of government. One was the late Jane Purves, media person and Conservative minister in the Hamm government, and the other is Steele. This will tell you how rare it is to have a look at how it really works inside. Read it if you haven't already.

Although mostly confirming our suspicions, Steele pulls the story together such that, like the Ivany report, his book will stand as a must-read reference that no aspiring politician will want to ignore for years to come. I doubt that Nova Scotia politics can be quite the same again.

Consider this key passage. A week or two before the 2009 election call, Steele meets soon-to-be premier Darrell Dexter on Hollis Street. "I asked him who was working on the policy plans for the first year of an NDP government. He replied that a transition team was in place. I thought he had misheard me, because I knew the transition team's job was to plan only the first few weeks of government until the cabinet settles in. I said so, and he looked at me blankly. That's when I really started to worry."

The NDP, in short, instead of spending its time in opposition thinking about how to govern (which is what most of us thought it was doing) was caught up entirely in the politics of getting there -- spending the first year flatfooted and off-balance -- just like the several governments before, and the McNeil government now in office. Now that we actually know -- instead of just suspecting it -- can any party aspiring to government ever again be quite so purblind to the mechanics of actually governing?

Steele's book has had resonance elsewhere, since government has similar problems in most places.

However, in my estimation, Nova Scotia's problems of political dysfunction are more acute than most, mainly because our history is longer and some bad habits picked up even centuries ago never seem to quite go away.

Some people dispute me on that, but when you compare Nova Scotia to a "new" province like Manitoba, which is like us in many ways -- roughly same population, a have-not province, one dominant city -- one has to ask how government there seems to be so routine and uncontroversial, while here, at times over the past 30 years, it's been like a freak show for the benefit of the nutcakes who elected it.

Nevertheless, crisis is usually the mother of change, and getting our horses pulling together might get us some positive impetus for a change. In my estimation, it's slowly happening.

Ralph Surette is a freelance journalist in Yarmouth County. This column was first published in the Chronicle Herald.

Photo: flickr/Charles Hoffman

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