Premier mustn’t be his own health minister


The Globe and Mail
Page A9

What does it take to be a good premier? And does John Hamm, the Premier-elect of Nova Scotia, have it? Those are the two questions that everyone is asking as the newly elected Tory government prepares to take the reins of power.

There are lots of reasons to like the new Premier. He has a firm moral compass and, once convinced of the rightness of a particular path, he will follow it resolutely. His commitment to close the financial sinkhole at the provincially owned Sydney steel plant is a good example: He never wavered from that policy, and courageously faced a lot of flak when the advantageous political course might have been to fudge.

On the other hand, he doesn’t make snap judgments about what the right course is, nor is he on ideological auto-pilot. He agonized for some time over what was the right thing to do with the steel plant, just as he wavered for a long time before deciding to bring down the minority Liberal government for failing to balance the budget.

But a sincere desire to “do the right thing” is, alas, not enough in politics. A good premier not only has the moral ballast to keep him personally upright in stormy weather but understands government and public policy and their many traps for the unsuspecting. Here Mr. Hamm stands in mortal danger. A former rural doctor, he was a relatively undistinguished leader of the Opposition for a few years. He has no ministerial experience. It was clear from the televised leaders’ debate in the campaign that his grasp of the detail of policy was weak and that he was flustered by aggressive opposition.

This lack of experience is telling against the new Premier even before he assumes office. He has been speculating publicly in the last few days about becoming his own minister of health in addition to his responsibilities as head of the government. The only thing worse than being your own minister of health would be to discuss the possibility in public before taking a decision.

The Premier thinks that by making himself minister of health, he will send a strong and reassuring message that fixing health care is his government’s top priority.

The result would be just the opposite. Being at the head of a government, especially one with such limited front-bench strength, is more than a full-time job. Taking charge of the Health department, which spends 40 per cent of the government’s budget and is in a shocking mess, is another killer post. To try to do both is to deprive each of the attention they need.

But that’s not this idea’s worst pitfall. A public-policy whiz with an appetite for detail and exhausting work might just pull it off. But he shouldn’t want to. A Premier thinking about the long-term welfare of his government and the health system would put one of his strongest and most able ministers in the job. The minister knows that, if he performs well, he makes himself a powerful contender for the top job when it next comes open, whereas the Premier is, well, already premier.

Just as importantly, he leaves himself an invaluable safety valve. Never underestimate how quickly a voter uprising can be quelled by the public execution of the minister responsible for an unpopular policy. If two years down the road Nova Scotians are baying for political blood because of a botched health-care reform, the Premier can subtly acknowledge the policy failure and make amends by firing the minister and announcing a fresh start. But human nature being what it is, it will be far harder for the Premier to make that kind of judgment of his own performance and harder again for him to recognize it publicly. Hardest of all will be the job of getting voters to dissociate policy failure in this sensitive area from the government’s overall performance.

As if all this weren’t bad enough, by speculating about the possibility of filling the post himself, the Premier is implying that none of his potential ministers is up to the toughest job in the government. That disparages them and undermines public confidence in the cabinet he is now fashioning.

The Premier-elect must, therefore, quickly surround himself with trustworthy advisers who can speak to him frankly about the realities of power. But they cannot be drawn from the Tory establishment tainted by the scandal and irresponsibility of former Conservative premier John Buchanan, or Mr. Hamm’s credibility will be in tatters before he sits in his new office. It is these choices that will fix the character of his government, yet the Premier must take them before he has the experience to choose wisely. A good leader recognizes his own weaknesses first, and acts decisively to compensate for them. We’ll soon see if John Hamm is such a leader.

Brian Lee Crowley is the president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a social and economic-policy think tank based in Halifax.