Silver Donald Cameron

Posts Tagged ‘NDP’

Breaches of Trust

Thursday, May 27th, 2010

May 16, 2010

Now that the Dexter government has brought in regulations to cover MLA expenses, I confess that I never really understood why the issue generated such flaming pillars of indignation.

True, the questionable expenses identified by the Auditor-General revealed a deplorable fat-cat mindset among MLAs of all three parties. But, as others have noted, the $73,500 spent on big-screen TVs, high-end cameras, office furniture, espresso-makers and other baubles amounted to just .00045% of provincial spending during the three years that were audited. And the expenditures weren’t generally illegal, just ill-considered.

To put it in perspective, if your household income is $50,000 a year the Nova Scotian average then the equivalent loss would be $22.50. It’s as if your kid had taken your old electric drill without permission, and lost it. You might give him a scandalizing — to use the good old Nova Scotia word — but you wouldn’t spend six months frothing and fulminating about it.

Yet that’s exactly what the editors and commentators did. At the same time, with few exceptions, they blithely overlooked a genuine scandal involving 700 times as much money, namely the systemic mismanagement of public-private partnership arrangements in the province’s schools. In that same report, the Auditor-General identified $52 million in losses on those contracts.

And the school contracts are about much more than money. They’re also about the safety and well-being of children. Employees at P3 schools were found to be inadequately trained — they lacked CPR and first-aid qualifications — and their backgrounds had not always been checked with the criminal or child-abuse registries. That’s an authentic scandal, which genuinely puts people at risk, but we heard precious little about it. Nor have we heard much — now or ever — about the other corporate welfare programs that cost us millions under the guise of tax holidays, incentives, payroll rebates and other giveaways.

So why did the MLA expense issue make commentators and citizens so furious?

Two things, I think. First, for most people there comes a point when large numbers cease to have meaning and simply become “a lot.” The mind slides away from enormous numbers like an ice-cube off a stovetop. Fifty-two million, five hundred million, five billion, who can understand such figures?

But we understand four laptop computers, or a $3000 TV set, or $8000 for a generator. And that’s stuff we want ourselves. (Actually, I don’t entirely understand that $8000 generator. I bought a pretty decent one for $700. Where does Richard Hurlburt shop?) In any case, we do understand $8000. We know how hard it is to earn that much. And so, paradoxically, we find it easier to get outraged about $8000 than about $52 million.

The other factor is a general sense of betrayal about our institutions and our leaders. Bankers, once the model of prudence and sobriety, now play craps with the world’s economy and demand that taxpayers bail them out. Members of Ottawa’s law ‘n’ order government allegedly cavort with cocottes and cocaine. Plagiarists infest the New York Times. The auto industry holds governments to ransom. The Commissioner of the RCMP pervaricates to Parliament. Trusted financial advisers steal client funds. The Roman Catholic hierarchy smells worse every week. And by some loopy logic, the government of Nova Scotia — in the middle of the MLA brouhaha — restores the title of “Honourable” to convicted fraudster Billy Joe MacLean.

Ye gods.

A year ago, Nova Scotians elected the NDP not because a wave of socialist fervour had swept through Nappan and Coddles Harbour, but because Nova Scotians were sick of governments they considered incompetent, self-serving and untrustworthy. Six months later they were furious to discover that MLAs from the new crowd, as well as the old, had been vigorously milking the public teat all along.

To sell your soul for a kingdom is grand opera. To sell it for an espresso-maker is farce. But now, having seen the issue dealt with, can we reclaim our sense of proportion? Yes, the MLAs snuck a pint of milk. But the proponents of P3 prisons, highways and convention centres are after the whole cow. Can we now pay attention to that?

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Living to see the day…

Wednesday, July 15th, 2009

JULY 5, 2009

“Mr. Premier,” I said.

I have not spoken two words with such relish since Marjorie and I said “I do” at our wedding. Darrell Dexter had been Nova Scotia’s 27th Premier for about an hour. In the cavernous Cunard Centre, I had lined up with dozens of others to congratulate him.

“Mr. Premier,” I said, “I just want to thank you for finally bringing this wonderful party to government.”

“Thank you very much,” said the grinning Premier. Then he said, as he tends to do at such moments, “but you know, I stand on the shoulders of all those people who went before me, and who put so much effort into making this possible.”

“Of course,” I said. “Nevertheless, you’re the person who finally carried the ball across the goal line.”

As the Premier said, the 2009 election was indeed the culmination of decades of effort by thousands of Nova Scotians, and many were in the hall. I had just met a retired coal miner from Glace Bay who remembered all the towering figures of Cape Breton politics J.B. MacLachlan, Clarie Gillis, Father Andy Hogan, Mickey MacDonald. He was 90 years old. “I never thought I’d live to see this day,” he said. That was the evening’s mantra.

I also saw Shirley Macnamara and Clair Rankin. Shirley ran several times for the NDP in Richmond County back in the 1970s, when I was president of the local NDP association and also a member of the party’s provincial council. I had recruited Clair to the NDP, and he had run three times in Richmond, including this time. We shook hands and hugged. We never thought we’d live to see this day.

Going into the election, I had not dared to hope for an NDP majority. I would have been delighted with a slender minority. I had lived through too many heart-breaking elections 1978, 1988, 1999 to have very high expectations. And that lack of expectation is a key to the character of the party.

Most New Democrats joined a party that they believed in, but that had no hope of forming a government. Those members often embraced ideas that were fringe concerns at the time, but contained the seeds of the future feminism, environmentalism, civil libertarianism, the eradication of racism and so on. The party was not a communion of saints indeed, it was often quite fractious but its members preferred a party obsessed by principles to parties obsessed by power. Its candidates ran, often repeatedly, without any expectation of winning, much less of forming a government. (They never thought they’d live to see the day.)

But as Marilla Stephenson noted in one of the most perceptive comments of the recent campaign when the NDP does capture a seat, it rarely surrenders it. Typically, the first victory is a squeaker, and then the vote totals just pile up. Look at Agriculture Minister John MacDonell, who won Hants East in 1998 by 798 votes, and retained it four times by steadily increasing margins. This year he won by 4542, capturing 65% of the vote.

The result of many such victories is a strong caucus. Premier Dexter could easily find another good Cabinet among the members he omitted members like Leonard Preyra, Michele Raymond, Howard Epstein, Pam Birdsall. Indeed, one of the Premier’s major challenges will be to make productive use of all the talent on his backbenches.

As with the seats, I suspect, so with the province. I have been a New Democrat for decades because I really think that the NDP’s vision and values closely match those of Nova Scotians. New Democrats deeply believe that society is as much about co-operation and mutual aid as it is about competition. So do Nova Scotians, who think it’s natural to respond to a house fire, an exotic illness or a breadwinner’s death by holding a benefit at the fire hall to raise money for the afflicted. The NDP commitment to medicare, pensions, unemployment insurance, various supports for families and communities what is that, if not a political expression of the tradition of mutual support that we see in communities all over the province?

The first NDP government in Atlantic Canada. At last. And truly, it’s just the beginning.

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Allan Blakeney: A Genuine Public Servant

Sunday, January 18th, 2009

January 18, 2009

“There are disadvantages in being in government in a small province,” writes Allan Blakeney in his recent memoir, An Honourable Calling (University of Toronto Press, 2008). “But there advantages, too. One of them is that the smaller scale allows one to plan and bring about many changes in a short time.” Denizens of Province House, please pay attention.

Blakeney hails from Bridgewater, NS, but he made his mark as NDP Premier of Saskatchewan from 1971 to 1982. His adopted province, he comments, has a long history as “a social laboratory for Canada.” In 1944, it gave us North America’s first democratic socialist government, headed by the legendary Tommy Douglas, who soon brought in universal hospital insurance, followed in 1962 by Canada’s first medicare program. Canadians today regard medicare as a defining feature of our country – but it was fiercely opposed at the outset, and it only came about after a bitter month-long strike by the province’s doctors.

Blakeney was a minister in Douglas’ cabinet, and in Woodrow Lloyd’s after Douglas moved on to become the first federal leader of the NDP. He succeeded Lloyd as party leader in 1970, and became Premier after winning the provincial election of 1971.

Does it make a difference which party is in power? You bet it does.

Ross Thatcher’s outgoing Liberal government had instituted user fees in medicare, and barred strikes in essential services. In its first two weeks in office, Blakeney writes, the NDP reversed both decisions – and also “we removed the medicare tax for people over 65; we reduced hours of work before overtime provisions kicked in; we gave extra protection to farmers against the seizure of their land and machinery by creditors; and we removed charges against the estates of patients who had received treatment for mental illness.”

That was the first fortnight. Blakeney’s NDP later implemented Canada’s first 40-hour work week, along with longer annual vacations, equal pay for women, and maternity and bereavement leave. It introduced Canada’s highest minimum wage – and although business objected, as it always does, profits went up. “Employees who get good wages spend their money,” says Blakeney, “ and – big surprise – employers do well.”

The NDP’s vision has always included an enhanced version of universal, comprehensive and accessible medicare that would include drug costs and dentistry, a vision still unfulfilled nationally. More than 30 years ago, however, Blakeney’s Saskatchewan had both.

In 1971, Saskatchewan had the lowest per-capita ratio of dentists in Canada, and many families lived more than 50 miles from the nearest dentist. The government created a corps of 400 “dental therapists”with two years of training to provide routine dental services and dental hygiene instruction to all school children. The program was both effective and popular.

Pharmacare, meanwhile, made prescription drug coverage available to everyone. At its heart were “standing offer contracts” with major drug manufacturers based on public tenders for six-months’ supplies of approved drugs. The tenders drove basic drug costs down, but pharmacies received an agreed mark-up and a dispensing fee. Normally, the province paid for the drug, and the patient paid the dispensing fee. The plan covered over 90% of the people using prescription drugs in the province.

Blakeney’s government was ultimately defeated by Grant Devine’s Progressive Conservatives. Blakeney led his party into one more unsuccessful election before retiring. Meanwhile, the Devine government dismantled the dental plan, turning dental care over to private clinics. It also modified the drug plan, says Blakeney, by introducing “financial barriers, with the result that fewer than 20 per cent of the potential beneficiaries received financial support.”

The dental program was never reinstated, although the pharmacare program was later revived. Blakeney notes that the same principles could guide a comprehensive national pharmacare scheme which would produce “massive savings for Canadians, either as taxpayers or patients or both.”

In office, Blakeney confronted many other major issues of late 20th-century Canada — the National Energy Policy, the Constitution, uranium, native affairs, NAFTA, potash, rural decline and more. What dominates his book, though, is the deep decency of the man and his political philosophy, his in-the-bones vision of a society at once rational, prudent and caring. Canada owes a great deal to Saskatchewan – and to the Nova Scotian who was once its premier.

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Two Women

Thursday, October 16th, 2008

October 5, 2008

“When you’re going door to door, it’s amazing what people will tell you,” says Megan Leslie. “I was at this house the other day, and when the man recognized me, he said, ‘I lost my job, I’m losing my house, I have to declare bankruptcy, and I don’t know what to do.’ And it really shook me how much trust this person had in me, to tell me that.

“You know, this is the privilege of being a candidate. People look to you to change things and make things better for them – even as a candidate.”

The man chose the right candidate to talk to. Personable and astute, Megan Leslie is a tireless anti-poverty advocate, deeply concerned with affordable housing and fair energy pricing. A dedicated environmentalist, she has a law degree and works with Dalhousie Legal Aid. Campaigning for the NDP nomination in Halifax against two strong and articulate competitors, she won by delivering a passionate speech to more than 600 party members.

Her opponents can only envy that enthusiasm. The Liberals quickly acclaimed a candidate just before the nomination deadline, while the Tories were forced to appoint a candidate not once, but twice. Meanwhile, Megan Leslie’s campaign workers include both of her competitors, five MLAs whose ridings fall within the Halifax federal constituency, and her revered predecessor, Alexa McDonough.

That kind of firepower ought to carry Alexa’s former seat decisively. Still, as Alexa firmly declares, the riding belongs not to the NDP, but to to the people of Halifax, and their support has to be earned anew every time.

I believe that good citizens should not only vote, but should actively support the candidates of their their choice. Since I’m voting in Halifax this time, I’ll contribute both cash and effort to Megan’s campaign, and hope to attend her victory party.

And though I can’t vote in Central Nova, I’m also contributing to Elizabeth May’s campaign.

A new web site,, contends that environmentalists should vote strategically, supporting the environmentally-responsible candidate most likely to defeat the local Tory. In Halifax: Megan Leslie, NDP. In West Nova: Robert Thibault, Liberal. In Central Nova: Elizabeth May, the Green leader.

It’s an appealing idea, but that’s not what I’m up to. I just think that Elizabeth May is an extraordinary woman, one of the most powerful voices for environmental sanity that we’ve ever had, and I think that Canada would benefit from having her in Parliament.

I met Elizabeth in the 1970s, when we were both in the coalition of determined Cape Bretoners who successfully opposed the insecticide spraying in the island’s forests. She was a shy young woman of 21 when the battle began. She emerged as an indefatigable, politicized environmentalist. In a later attempt to prevent Scott Paper from herbicide spraying, she and her family lost their home and 70 acres of land in a lawsuit – but the suit delayed the spraying long enough to prevent the use of 2,4,5-T. That’s commitment.

After law school, Elizabeth served as an adviser to former Environment Minister Tom Macmillan. She was instrumental in creating several new national parks and was in negotiating the Montreal Protocol on the ozone layer. She later worked for the Public Interest Advocacy Centre and spent 17 years as Executive Director of the Sierra Club of Canada. She’s written five books, and she has a basket of awards and honorary degrees.

In Canada, unlike Europe, the Greens have never been part of the political mainstream. Sweeping cultural currents are rapidly changing that – as is Elizabeth May’s performance as leader. Since she took over, her party has steadily risen in the polls. In a 2006 Ontario by-election, Elizabeth captured second place, with 26% of the vote.

The strongest evidence of her stature is the uproar that arose when she was barred from the leadership debates. Agreed, the Greens have never elected a member – but by any other standard they are now a significant national party. The public roared, the establishment caved, and Elizabeth entered the debates.

These two women are like a waft of springtime. They’re a powerful antidote to cynicism. A province which can generate such candidates should feel proud of itself – and prouder still if it sends them on to Ottawa.

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