Only voters can change the ‘rules’ of politics

by Neil Everton

At a time of growing public discontent at the behaviour of politicians, it’s nice to meet a man who still believes public service means doing what’s right, rather than taking a course of action just because it enables him to cling to power.

In Graham Steele’s case, doing what he thought was right and in the public interest cost him his job as Finance Minister of Nova Scotia.

His experience has caused him to challenge the ‘cling to power at any cost’ attitude of many current politicians and political parties.

In a book looking back on 15 years in politics, Mr Steele warns: Being in politics makes you dumber, and the longer you’re in politics the dumber you get.” He says even the most well-meaning, idealistic newcomers to politics are soon taught what he calls The Rules of the Game.

Rule One is simple: get yourself re-elected. The drive to be re-elected drives everything a politician does, he writes.

Rule Two: spend as little time as possible at the Legislature. There are no voters there.

Rule Three: perception is reality. Since people vote based on what they believe to be true, it doesn’t matter what is actually true.

Rule Four: keep it simple. Focus on what is most likely to sink in with a distracted electorate: slogans, scandals, personalities, pictures, image.

After running through a few more equally dispiriting rules about keeping in the spotlight, avoiding blame and not leaving a paper trail, Mr Steele arrives at Rule Ten. And Rule Ten says “deny that these are the Rules of the Game.”

Graham Steele resigned over a pay deal for health care workers. The deal would buy-off the nurses and avoid a high-profile strike by traditional supporters of the NDP government. But he believed it was wrong. It would lead to more high-wage settlements in the public sector, without tackling the fundamental problems facing health care. It would have been expedient, but it was wrong.

Author Graham Steele chats with Podium's Halina St James at the book launch
Author Graham Steele chats with Podium’s Halina St James at the book launch

Graham Steele launched his book at Province House in Halifax. Just up a flight of stairs from the book signing was the room where another Nova Scotia politician made a stand for ‘climbing above the muddy pool of politics’. That man was Joseph Howe, a journalist, writer, politician and shaper of modern Canada.

Joseph Howe said his public life was governed by three questions:

  • What is right?
  • What is just?
  • What is for the public good?

One hundred and fifty years later, Graham Steele is urging the public, the voters, to hold politicians to a higher standard than they seem to settle for.

He writes: “For the public good, something different has to be done. Otherwise we’ll just keep watching the same bad movie, over and over.

“Our politics are in a bad way because politicians succeed by following the Rules of the Game, and the Rules of the Game are incompatible with good government.

“It is not our politicians who will lead the change. The only person who can change our politics is the engaged citizen.”

What I Learned About Politics: Inside the Rise and Collapse of Nova Scotia’s NDP Government, is published by Nimbus Publishing.

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