Nova Scotia's NDP government finally setting sail

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With this first budget truly its own, the NDP government is finally setting sail in earnest after nearly a year of preparation, delays and mishaps. It's heading into very rough seas, but in one essential way this ship is better prepared than previous ones for the voyage.

It has to do with the crew. I don't know if I dare say outright that it's more motivated, but it's certainly less prone to mutiny. The budget has announced a 10 per cent cut in the civil service over the next four years and has scaled back public sector pensions -- and no angry demonstrations in front of the legislature! If it stays that way, this is a noteworthy political feat.

That the civil service is getting along better with the NDP than with previous governments was one of the first things I heard about the new administration after the election last summer. Civil servants, I was told, were thrilled that the new ministers "read the documents we give them."

I hesitated in astonishment when I first heard this, since it implied that former cabinet ministers did not read their briefing material. Was it that bad? This would no doubt be an unfair judgment on some former Conservative and Liberal ministers who struggled earnestly amid our troubled politics; but in a broader sense, it does reflect on the many more for whom politics was the only criterion of decision, and facts and expertise could go hang.

I was told about this again recently by a public servant who seemed almost giddy with delight over it. An enthusiastic Nova Scotia civil servant! It reminded me of the last time I talked to one. That was in 1970. I was working in Montreal and was sent to cover the Nova Scotia election that year. Trying to get a grip on the broader picture, I interviewed a civil service rep at a Halifax restaurant who was so enthusiastic about everything government was doing that he bored me silly.

It was a time to be enthusiastic, to feel unequivocally that one was a "public servant" in the full sense of the term. It was the tail end of the Stanfield government, which had, like other provincial governments across the country, modernized the old 19th-century ways of doing things.

But modernizing also meant more bureaucracy and 10 years after that, it was all going bad, caught up in our politics of political corruption. As an example, last year, when I was in an intensive round of health care columns, I was told by various still-traumatized doctors and administrators, who were in on the construction of the QEII and other large overhauls of Halifax area hospitals, how it worked. The analyses and the long-term planning had all been done. Then the experts were rushed in to last-minute meetings with the politicians where all of that was brushed aside, and the only questions on the table for the experts were: How many jobs are there in it? And how many votes for the coming election?

To be both motivated and effective, a civil service has to be doing useful work that's advancing clear policies, or delivering services in which the public has confidence. If you're a public servant, there's nothing more useless and demoralizing than writing reports nobody reads, or working to serve as political cover for a manipulating minister -- then being accused by the public of doing nothing.

If the NDP is succeeding in engaging the public service to a greater degree, then its prospects of tightening it up by 10 per cent as planned are good. For public servants at the middle and upper levels, an enhanced sense of purpose is a fair exchange for what may or may not be a greater workload, although at the clerk level that will be trickier.

Thus, to sum up, the ship is in better shape and the morale of its crew higher than before. But the S.S. Budget is also barely out of the harbour yet. There are shoals -- attacks from the right and the left. Some are very unhappy, feeling they've been cut while others haven't. I note the unhappiness of the arts community -- a 10 per cent cut out of the culture budget while most departments got a raise. And the rogue waves are heaving in the distance: health care costs, debt still rising, taxes and so on. For the captain and the officers, it's a good time to not have to worry about mutiny down below.

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