Participatory dictatorship in Nova Scotia
Author Stephen Kimber complained in the
Halifax Examiner Monday about the lack of consultation in deciding how to spend Nova Scotia’s $250 million offshore windfall.
But Kimber imagines that Nova Scotia’s system of government is a participatory democracy, whereas in fact it’s a participatory dictatorship.
And the dictator (“Dear Leader”) is the premier.
This may be why so many eligible voters find something else to do on Election Day — they know that democracy occurs only on the day we choose our Dear Leader. He, and I do mean “he”, will rule for the next four years, depending on his appetite for another election at any given time. (This assumes a majority government. Minority governments weaken Dear Leader’s grip somewhat, which is why voters like them.)
Here’s how it works.
Let’s say someone named Susan has caught your eye as an intelligent, caring member of your community. You and a group of other citizens convince her to run for the House of Assembly.
At first, Susan toys with the idea of running as an “independent” candidate. But then the historian in the group points out the last political rookie to be elected as an independent was Ebenezer Tilton Moseley, in 1874. (We’ve certainly had independent MLAs before, but only after they’ve been turfed out of their party for things like fraud.)
So, the first thing Susan must do is choose one of the three big parties to run for. To keep it simple, let’s further assume Susan joins the ruling party (the Party) and wins the right to be its candidate for your riding.
Accepting that nomination will likely be the last independent decision of her political career in Nova Scotia.
Susan will have to faithfully toe the Party’s line throughout the election campaign. If the Party believes the premier is still powerful enough to win it a re-election, then he will draw most of that line himself.
Once elected, Susan will typically take a seat in the back of the House where she will do and say exactly what Dear Leader wants. If she doesn’t, the premier will likely never appoint her to his cabinet. This is important because going from MLA to cabinet minister would boost her salary by 50 per cent to a total of about $150,000. This is just one of many jobs around the House that Dear Leader and other party leaders can offer their MLAs. They all come with extra cash, starting at about $10,000.
If Susan steps too far off the Party line, she should probably plan on running and being defeated as an independent in the next election.
However, Susan is free to speak her mind at meetings of the Party’s caucus, which is a group comprising the Party’s elected members and, rarely, outside luminaries. But you and your group will never know what Susan says in caucus because the discussions are secret. (In caucus, no one can hear you scream.)
You and your group may get little tidbits occasionally because you’re insiders, but even then you can’t be sure you’re hearing the truth.
As for the voters, well, obviously they’re in the dark. Susan tries to compensate for this by keeping a high profile in the community and helping people deal with the government. This makes her “a good constituency woman.”
Now let’s say that Susan plays the game well and Dear Leader gives her a job in his cabinet as the Minister of Roads.
At last, Susan’s got her hands on the levers of power. She can seek advice from a legion of professional, non-partisan civil servants, make decisions and give them marching orders. The civil servants will implement her decisions even if they disagree with her.
However, she can’t do anything Dear Leader doesn’t agree with on pain of banishment to the backbenches, or worse.
Susan will have an “executive assistant” to help her with constituency matters. However, depending on the premier, her EA’s real job may be to keep tabs on her. If she does or plans something that might hurt Dear Leader or — worse — the Party, her EA will snitch on her. (The Party is everyone’s meal ticket and must be protected at all costs. It also has mystical qualities that only its members can appreciate.)
Still, all in all, Susan has an opportunity to “make a difference” and the person best positioned to help is her deputy minister. Typically, the deputy is a talented, non-partisan person who can run a department of hundreds on a day-to-day basis and also has the savvy to keep Susan out of trouble.
The deputy works where the political rubber meets the non-partisan road without being drawn into politics.
It’s a critical job in a well-functioning Canadian democracy. The right combination of minister and deputy minister can get a lot of good work done.
However, deputy ministers are hired and fired by the premier. So, if Dear Leader really wants his way, he’ll get it.
Many believe the decision-making process in Nova Scotia is convoluted and time-wasting, which is a hallmark of a democracy. But in the final analysis, it’s actually a straight line that begins and ends with the premier.
It’s true that the other nine provinces and Parliament work largely the same way, although the federal Party now has to deal with an increasingly independent Senate.
And just because everyone else is doing it doesn’t mean it’s right for Nova Scotia. Nova Scotians can change our system to something that better suits our values. In Kimber’s case, that includes more consultation. Me, I’d like to see Dear Leader come down a peg or two.
It would be great to hear some other ideas on this. Comments to this blog are moderated and real names are required.