Graham and me and public sector labour relations

While I was on vacation a couple of weeks ago Graham Steele took to Facebook to respond to my July 10 post which focused on how his popular book What I Learned About Politics treated the Dexter government’s handling of public sector wage negotiations. For those of you who haven’t read it, Graham’s Facebook entry is included below.  I’ve put in italics the bits that I’ll address in my response to his response.

I won’t take the time to address all of Graham’s points. Interesting as some of them are, they are not particularly relevant to my main point which is that based on the evidence presented in the book Graham’s disagreement was more about process than substance – that   being the unsubstantial difference between three-year wage increases of 6.9% and 7.5%. Graham takes issue with my interpretation, arguing that there was in fact much more at stake, that the settlement “put financial handcuffs on the government for years to come. “ However, nowhere in the book or in his Facebook post does Graham spell out what the alternatives were and whether he argued for them at the time.

In that regard, would it have been reasonable and practical to expect the public sector unions to settle for less, such as another two or three years at 1%? Or was he in favour of the Hamm government’s failed approach – back to work legislation and an imposed wage settlement like the notorious Bill 68? Or even a rollback, such as the Savage Liberals imposed in the mid-1990s? He doesn’t say. As Minister of Finance and a member of the powerful Treasury Board Graham had to have at least acquiesced to the government’s initial offer of 6.1% over three years and the later offer of 6.9%. An increase of 7.5% makes the “handcuffs” a little tighter then a 6.9% raise, but that’s all. And, again, there was the distinct possibility that anti-strike legislation and final offer arbitration would have brought a settlement higher than 7.5%.

I have a similar problem with his complaint that the settlement also “didn’t buy any change. It brought the same people doing the same work the same way, but for more money.” There is not much in the book about that issue and there is no evidence that Graham tried to use the power of his cabinet post to “buy change” or what such change might entail. Maybe Graham will invoke cabinet and caucus confidentiality to justify the book’s lack of detail about alternative negotiating scenarios, but that should not have prevented him from telling us – either in the book or in his various media platforms – what he thinks is the best way to handle wage negotiations and public sector labour relations in general.

In his Facebook post Graham uses the old debaters trick of suggesting that my piece has many errors but “let me mention only two.” The first cited is not an error at all. Contrary to what he writes, I did not say his book was silent on whether there were “sweeteners” in the final deal. I wrote that I did not know whether there were any “sweeteners” to make the final deal worth more than 7.5%. I didn’t know that because while speculating about the possibility, Graham did not say explicitly that there were and of what they consisted.

My second transgression was to be churlish (“surly, mean”, according to the Oxford English Reference Dictionary) and “suggest that I (Graham) might have misrepresented the facts in order to juice sales of my book.” First, I never suggested he “misrepresented the facts.” I did question his interpretation of the scope of the disagreement – as discussed above, the 6.9% versus 7.5%. Secondly, I did not state any intent on Graham’s part. I did suggest that it never hurts a book’s success to have a message that resonates with a sizeable group of people. There is a bit of a parallel between my alleged churlishness and the way in which Graham’s book deals with former Premier’s office staffers Shawn Fuller and Matt Hebb. He goes into considerable detail in the book about their employment connections with the NSGEU and their involvement in labour negotiations on the government’s behalf. In Shawn’s case Graham implies that the 7.5% deal was mainly his doing. The media, particularly Herald columnist Bill Black, read between the lines and concocted a story about conflict of interest. In his Facebook post, Graham vehemently protests the conflict of interest narrative, dismissing it as “partisan bullshit.” Better late than never, but to avoid damaging reputations, even inadvertently, would it not have been appropriate to include such a disclaimer in the book? In that spirit, let me make clear here that I do not believe that Graham “misrepresented the facts in order to juice sales.”

One final point. Graham starts his rebuttal with a “Warning and/or invitation” that the post “is only for people who are interested in the inner workings of the Dexter government.” That strikes me as strange, given that most of his book is devoted to the inner workings of the Dexter government. Moreover, the subject of labour relations is far from the “inside baseball” implied in his warning/invitation. Thanks in part to his book, the rocky relationship between the government and those who work for it has become the defining issue for the McNeil Liberals. This is in contrast to the Dexter years which, with a couple of exceptions, were notable for labour peace, public sector wage restraint and respect for free collective bargaining. The fact that Graham seems to take no pride in this record is puzzling.


Richard Starr took the time to lay Howard’s book and mine side-by-side, to try to draw from them a coherent narrative. What a relief to see someone reading carefully, and with attention to detail. I don’t think Richard got everything right—more on that later—but there are two big things he did get right.The first big thing he gets right is to reject, out of hand, the narrative that two people working in Darrell Dexter’s premier’s office were in some conflict of interest because they had previously worked for the NSGEU. This idea is a whole-cloth fiction created by the NDP’s political enemies. I have never said it, and don’t believe it; and when anyone puts it to me, I tell them they’re barking up the wrong creek without a paddle. There were problems with what happened, and why it happened, but conflict of interest is not among them. It’s partisan bullshit.The second big thing that Richard gets right is that the settlement with the NSGEU was not the only reason I resigned, or even the biggest reason. It was exactly as I described it in my book: the last straw. The last straw doesn’t have to be the heaviest. A different finance minister, with different weights on his or her mind, and operating in a different context, might well have stayed on. I couldn’t. Richard puts his finger on why I wasn’t totally forthcoming when I resigned. I had a long list of reasons why I had to go. Everything I said on the day I resigned was true, but there were other reasons (including the NSGEU settlement) that I did not say. I’d been around politics enough to know that if I were completely forthcoming, my words would be misunderstood. They would also be deliberately misrepresented for political advantage.As I say in my book, I did not support the NSGEU settlement, but I did support the Dexter government generally. This is a distinction that is hard for most people to grasp. The NSGEU settlement was the biggest single financial decision the Dexter government could make, because the settlement would spread through the whole public service, the dollar amounts were very large, and the ripples would be felt for years. I didn’t agree with what the premier did, so I could not stay as his finance minister. But right up until election day, I believed that re-electing the Dexter government was the best thing for Nova Scotia. I would have been more forthcoming on the day I resigned if (a) the terms of the NSGEU settlement were secret, or (b) the settlement might have been reversed. Neither of those conditions was met. Everything about the NSGEU settlement was public. All that was left was for the details to be worked out via arbitration. Moreover, the settlement was a “done deal” when the government’s offer of arbitration was made. It could not be withdrawn once it was made—not without a charge of bad-faith bargaining. So my going out in a blaze of narcissistic glory would have accomplished nothing, except to harm a government I supported. Besides, what if I wasn’t right? I’ve never said that the premier was wrong. All I’ve said is I didn’t agree with him. That’s not the same thing. In our Cabinet system of government, a disagreement on a fundamental issue means the minister must resign. I wasn’t sure I was “right”. The premier was under astounding pressure. The Capital District Health Authority was effectively on strike. The hospitals were emptying out. Surgeries and appointments were being cancelled by the hundreds, soon to be thousands. How do you think you would handle such pressure? A different choice was possible, and I thought a different choice should have been made; but that’s not the same as saying the premier was wrong and I was right.Broadly speaking, then, I think Richard’s analysis hits the right notes. But Richard’s analysis isn’t all correct. I don’t want to run down, point by point, what I think are the errors. Let me mention only two. First, I say right in the book that the NSGEU settlement included several “sweeteners”. Richard says I’m silent on the point, but I’m not. Richard then builds on his error by arguing that, without sweeteners, the settlement was no big deal. But it was a big deal. It put financial handcuffs on the government for years to come. It also didn’t buy any change. It bought the same people doing the same work the same way, but for more money. Second, I think it’s churlish of Richard to suggest that I might have misrepresented the facts in order to juice sales of my book. The facts are exactly as I laid them out. Chapter 10 of my book, which is the one on which Richard focuses, was actually the first chapter I wrote. It was written very shortly after the events they describe. Why couldn’t it be Howard who got it wrong?There’s plenty of room for debate over public-sector wage settlements. Is the base right? If it isn’t, what should it be, and how do we get there? Once we have the right base, what’s the right level of annual increase? Is it nominal growth in GDP (as Richard argues unconvincingly), or real growth in GDP, or the consumer price index, or growth in government revenue, or growth in private sector wages, or something else? The answers are not self-evident. Moreover, the purpose of government is not to pay the civil service. The purpose is to act collectively for the common good. And yes, paying our public servants decent wages and a fair benefit package is part of the common good, but only a part. The fundamental question in politics is this: What do we want our governments to do? The fundamental tension is: At what price, and who pays? That’s politics, and that debate will continue long after Howard’s book and mine are forgotten.



About Richard Starr

RICHARD STARR has had careers as a journalist, public servant, broadcaster, political staffer and freelance policy adviser. He is author of numerous newspaper and magazine articles, appearing in everything from Atlantic Insight to Atlantic Progress. A lifelong student of Maritime history, Starr is married to playwright and former MP Wendy Lill. They live in Dartmouth.
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