Graham Steele: What I Learned About Politics

Since Canadian political writing is a cause near and dear to my own heart – and since I think that, in general, we do not produce or consume enough of it – I’m writing up a set of short reviews of the books that have been selected as finalists for the Shaughnessy Cohen prize for political writing. (Which I gather is a big deal in Ottawa, but no one else in Canada seems to pay much attention to – which is, incidentally, also the problem with Canadian political writing as a whole.) Maybe “review” is not the right word, but perhaps “reaction pieces”…

So first up is Graham Steele, he of the prosaic title: What I Learned about Politics.

I hope I’m not tipping my hand too much in saying that this book was my favourite, and certainly one that I’ll be recommending to my students, particularly grad students working on democratic theory. It is an “insider” political memoir, written by the former NDP finance minister of Nova Scotia, but as he himself observes, it is different from the standard political memoir in that he spends little if any time trying to burnish his reputation or deflect blame for poor decisions. Instead, what he’s written is an extremely straightforward account of how he got into politics, what he learned about it as he went along, and how he eventually became disenchanted – to the point of resigning his cabinet position, as well as deciding not to run again.

I don’t follow Nova Scotia politics at all, so I have no idea if he’s doing some subtle reputation-burnishing that was below my threshold of awareness. What I like about the book is that he addresses two issues that I think are extremely important, the first being the decline of democratic deliberation, and the second being the relationship between public-sector unions and the NDP (or the left more generally). And he has really interesting things to say on both topics (and just as importantly, he says them in an extremely believable way).

On the State of Democracy

I found Steeles’s discussion on this topic extremely clear and helpful, although much of the reason I found it helpful is that it speaks to a long-standing frustration I have about the state of the academic discussion and debates over democratic theory (which is, admittedly, not really his concern). Everyone who participates in these debates is aware of the fact that the standard models being bandied about of how democracy is supposed to work (or what constitutes its “normative core,” or the source of the legitimacy of democratic procedures) are extremely idealized. Yet when you bring this up (which is something, incidentally, that only the unsophisticated ever do), it gets dismissed with a sort of hand-wavy gesture. After all, don’t economists work with a highly idealized model of the market economy as well (who has ever seen a perfectly competitive market)? “Yes, we all know that real-world democracy sucks. But here we’re talking about the essence of democracy, or the ideal of democracy (or whatever..) Perhaps if we had campaign-finance reform, it wouldn’t be so bad…”

Here’s the thing: The models of democracy that dominate the discussion in academia are not just idealized, in many cases they have no empirical correlate at all. Economists might introduce highly idealized models of the market, but at least it’s possible to go out into the real world and find people, you know, buying and selling things from each other. With a lot of democratic theory you can’t even find the equivalent. This is true regardless of whether you look at voting (or “public choice”) theory, which fails to take into account the fact that legislators almost never really vote their preferences, or one looks at deliberative theory, which fails to take into account the fact that legislators never really deliberate.

In one of the more compelling passages of the book, Steele describes the shock he experienced when he rose to give his first speech in the provincial legislature, only to discover that no one in the room was listening, and that they could not be called to order (any more than they already were). One gets the sense that, like many of my colleagues, he already knew, intellectually, that parliamentary ‘debate’ is not really debate. But there is a big difference between grasping this fact intellectually and actually standing up in front of a crowded room and realizing you can talk all you want but no one is listening…(University professors should perhaps try to imagine ‘teaching’ to a classroom of students over whom you have no authority, most of whom are ignoring you, talking, playing with their phones, and those who are paying attention are doing so only to heckle, which they do loudly and often. It’s not that learning in such an environment will be difficult, it’s that no learning will be going on at all.)

Perhaps what has gotten the most attention has been the “10 rules of the game” that Steele lays out, which he presents as the set of rules that all successful politicians must follow (explicitly or implicitly):

1. Get yourself re-elected. Like the sex drive among primates, the drive to be re-elected drives everything a politician does.

2. Spend as little time as possible at the legislature. There are no voters there, so any time spent there is wasted. Go where the voters are. Go home.

3. Perception is reality. Since people vote based on what they believe to be true, it doesn’t matter what is actually true. This is at the root of all the dark political arts.

4. Keep it simple. Policy debates are for losers. Focus on what is most likely to sink in with a distracted electorate: slogans, scandals, personalities, pictures, image. Find whatever works, then repeat it relentlessly.

5. Put yourself in the spotlight. People are more likely to vote for someone they’ve met or feel they know or at least have heard of. If it’s not in the news, it didn’t happen.

6. Politics is a team sport, part 1: Loyalty. You can’t accomplish anything as an individual. No matter what, stick with your team.

7. Politics is a team sport, part 2: Always be attacking. There are other teams that want to take away your job at the next election. You have to beat them, and if you can, destroy them.

8. Don’t leave a paper trail. You don’t want to leave any evidence that runs against your own story. If you’re explaining, you’re losing.

9. Fight hard to take credit, fight harder to avoid blame.

10. Deny that these are the Rules of the Game.

This list, which has been widely reproduced, actually makes the discussion sound a little too pat. More interesting in some ways is his discussion of constituency work, how it absorbs time and energy, but also how it basically leaves no room for political ideology.

In any case, nothing on this list should come as a surprise to anyone. We all know that politicians do this. Yet what most of us hold out is the hope that they do this just to get into a position of power, but that once they are in that position, then behind closed doors they shed the mask and start to have intelligent discussions about policy, or about how to advance the public interest. In other words, we hope that these rules are nothing but the means adopted to achieve some higher good. Steele is emphatic that the means have become the end – there is simply nothing left beyond these rules. The conversations that we hope are happening simply are not.

Public sector unions

Steele tries to build up a certain amount of drama over his ultimate resignation from the position of Minister of Finance (as in “here, for the first time ever, you will learn the real reason why I resigned…”). This aspect of the book feels a bit contrived. On the other hand, the reason why he quit is interesting. Part of it was due to the realization that politics is theatre, and that the complexion of the party in power actually doesn’t make that much difference, because most spending is pre-committed and non-revisable. But the triggering event was a salary settlement reached with public employee unions.

His party came to power in 2009, right at the beginning of the recession. So public finances were tight, and employees in the public sector were being asked to exhibit some restraint. What Steele found, however – to his disappointment – was that the unions continued to act in a highly adversarial fashion, using a variety of strategies to extract the highest pay increase they could get. As Minister of Finance he put together what he considered the most generous offer that the government could afford, only to discover that, through various crossed wires, his ceiling had become the floor in negotiations. The settlement that resulted was not disaster, in the sense that it was not going to bankrupt the government. The problem was that it simply reduced the amount of room left for policy initiatives to zero. By hoovering up every last cent, not to mention forcing a tax increase, the unions had, in effect, paralyzed the government for at least a generation – leaving it unable to do anything but continue with its existing functions, not doing anything new. So at this point the question naturally poses itself, what’s the point of being in government? And what does it matter which party is in power?

This by itself is an interesting story. It is also one that it takes some courage to tell. Support for unions is the one area where the left in Canada can be extremely tribal. Voicing even minor reservations is to invite immediate, and often quite emotionally charged rebuke and even ostracism. This is rather unfortunate, since public-sector unions are developing quite a track record of screwing over NDP governments. So it seems like a topic that should be open for debate – particularly when it comes to the merits of unions in the public sector, which are quite a different beast from unions in the private sector – without inviting unflattering comparisons to Wisconsin.

The main thing to understand about unions is that they are fundamentally adversarial. That is their institutional role. They are there to advocate for their members, and to advance the interests of their members using whatever tactics and strategies are available. They are, in this sense, like a defence attorney, whose job is to get his client acquitted, regardless of whether he happens to think that person guilty or innocent. Unions may talk a lot about “fairness,” just like a defence attorney may talk about “justice,” but ultimately that is not their concern. Fairness or justice are the outcome of a procedure, which works only by pitting two adversaries against one another (employer vs. union, or prosecutor vs. defence), none of whom care about the fairness or justice of the outcome.

The problem is that many people on the left still romanticize unions, and try to see them as possessing qualities that are, in fact, only incidental to their role. In particular, there is a tendency to view them as an advocate for the poor, downtrodden, exploited working classes. Of course, they sometimes are advocates for the poor, downtrodden, and exploited, but this is incidental to their function. The view that it is somehow an essential property is, however, persistent, one of the many legacies of Karl Marx. It was, after all, Marx who claimed that the distinctive feature of the working class is that its particular interest is also the universal interest of humanity. So according to this view, unions don’t have to worry about the general interest, because their self-interest necessarily coincides with the general interest. This may sound rather optimistic, or self-serving, but I assure you, this is what a lot of people on the left still believe.

This romanticism, however, sometimes leads people in the NDP to expect that, when they form the government, that the unions will somehow be less adversarial with them (perhaps knowing that “we’re on the same side,” or based on greater trust that a left-wing government is doing all that it can for them). This often leads to a rather rude surprise, when they discover that union leaders and negotiators wake up the morning after an NDP victory still wanting to maximize benefits for their members. Furthermore, they sometimes wake up with the expectation that they will be even more successful at doing so when negotiating with the NDP, because the NDP is more likely to be sympathetic, or to see the ‘inherent justice’ of their claims, and how they have suffered grievous ills at the hands of the previous government. At the extreme, they wake up the morning after an NDP victory and say to themselves, “payday!”

As a resident of Toronto, and of Ontario, this sort of speculation has particular resonance, because of the following political cycle we have had occasion to observe:

1. Public elects Bob Rae premier at the head of an NDP government.
2. Rae government gets into big fight with intransigent public sector union (Rae days).
3. Government settles with union on non-punitive terms.
4. Enraged public kicks out NDP government and elects Mike Harris.
5. Mike Harris fires 13,000 civil servants

1. Public elects David Miller mayor of Toronto (in effect, an NDP government)
2. Miller gets into big fight with intransigent public sector union (garbage strike).
3. Government settles with union on non-punitive terms.
4. Enraged public kicks out Miller and elects Rob Ford
5. Rob Ford privatizes garbage collection

Now I’m not here to judge this, I’m just observing a sequence of events (although it does remind me a bit of the story of the scorpion and the frog). I guess my biggest point is that because the NDP is less adversarial toward public sector unions, unless the party has a proven track record of eliciting less adversarial behaviour from those unions in return, this gives the average person a huge reason not to vote for the NDP. After all, if the union is being maximally adversarial in pursuit of its own interest, why wouldn’t the taxpaying public want to send in a negotiator committed to being maximally adversarial in defence of the taxpaying public’s interest? Thus the perception of being friendly toward public sector unions seems to me a huge electoral handicap for the NDP. Now perhaps the benefits that the party gets generally from union support is sufficient to outweigh this, but I would be interested in seeing more dispassionate debate on the topic (and what the numbers are in either direction).


If there are problems with the book, they are mainly organized around the fact that it is a bit less ambitious than it could have been. First of all, it is too short, and too brief in parts. It’s as though Steele wasn’t entirely sure that people would be interested in hearing what he had to say, and so in some areas kept things to only the most basic facts. One also gets the sense that he didn’t expect anyone outside Nova Scotia to read it, and so he takes for granted a lot of local knowledge that many of us do not possess. (Like there was apparently a fight that broke out in some public washroom between a cabinet minister and an opposition MP, that we’re all supposed to know about, but frankly, I hadn’t heard of. Steele talks about it but doesn’t really explain what happened.)

Finally, the obligatory optimistic note on which he ends things – that it’s up to voters to change things (in some sort of decentralized fashion) – is risible. The “rules of the game” are what they are precisely because that is what voters respond to. But of course, isn’t that the problem we’re all dealing with? That’s why I wrote my book too – partly to articulate the deeper psychological reason why “the rules” are so effective. The democratic system is, if not entirely broken, then very much on the road to breaking, and yet there doesn’t seem to be anything that anyone can do about it. Just telling voters to wake up and smell the coffee is like prescribing the disease as a cure for itself – if voters could change things, then things wouldn’t be the way that they are.


Graham Steele: What I Learned About Politics — 4 Comments

  1. Thanks for this extended “reaction piece”. It may save me the bother of reading the book myself, although I still have a certain morbid curiosity about the NS NDP’s implosion after one term in government.

    Observing from the opposite coast, so relying on media-filtered impressions, the Dexter government did seem remarkably tone-deaf in ways that needlessly alienated both traditional NDP supporters and the broader electorate. (For example, consider what looked like an agonizingly slow response to public outrage at the bungled handling of the Rehtaeh Parsons tragedy.) This degree of ineptitude seems almost too wilful to be just sloppiness or inattention.

    You give two examples that suggest a systemic problem for the NDP in its dealings with public sector unions, and I think you make some good points. So how about making a few substitutions (in caps) in these sentences:

    “I guess my biggest point is that because the LIBERALS/CONSERVATIVES [are] less adversarial toward CORPORATIONS, unless the party has a proven track record of eliciting less adversarial behaviour from those CORPORATIONS in return, this gives the average person a huge reason not to vote for the LIBERALS/CONSERVATIVES. After all, if the CORPORATION is being maximally adversarial in pursuit of its own interest, why wouldn’t the taxpaying public want to send in a negotiator committed to being maximally adversarial in defence of the taxpaying public’s interest? Thus the perception of being friendly toward CORPORATIONS seems to me a huge electoral handicap for the LIBERALS/CONSERVATIVES.”

    Yup, definitely a major handicap for those parties, one which has kept them out of power for decades. We’re going to need a lot of help from the political philosophers to figure that one out.

  2. My point had to do with more than just the role of government as employer.

    Why is it that when our governments, usually of the Liberal/Conservative stripe, bargain weakly with corporations, because of some combination of ideology or cronyism or just incompetence, they seldom pay much of a political price? A prominent example would be the charges for natural resources extracted from Crown lands. Sure, there are big constitutional differences which don’t help, but how have the Norwegians demonstrated so much more success in capturing revenues from oil, while our provinces and the feds race to the bottom to reduce resource royalty rates and taxes, to great applause from the media and VSPs.

    Like this week, for example, when Ottawa agreed to reduce taxation on proposed liquid natural gas export facilities in BC, further reducing any net benefit to taxpayers if this resource is exploited. Cue applause:

    This taxpayer would just like to fire our negotiators. But I accept that this will be a minority view.