Back in the ‘Saddle’

For whatever combination of reasons, lame and legitimate, I haven’t written a blog post since early Summer 2017.

It’s not that I haven’t intended to. I have started writing posts en route back from some work, educational and volunteer trips to various places in the world, or across North America.

So much has happened in my life and work since 2017. Much of it worth writing about, although lots of the temporal impetus having now passed the increasingly-short attention spans we seem to have afflicting us these days for timeliness.m, it’s fallen by the wayside.

I will get back to blogging more regularly now; both as an outlet, as a form for connection and for sharing what will hopefully sometimes be interesting and topical.

I have the great good fortune of traveling for work and volunteer commitments, and our family makes a point of taking our kids to expose them to the world.  I am acutely aware that this is still a rare privilege, notwithstanding how “small” the world often feels.

Many of the places I’ve been in the last few years are back “in the news” these days for various and often dubious reasons. For example:

– South Africa has pivotal elections coming up in a month;

– New Zealand is still reeling from the Christchurch shootings;

– Northern Ireland and the UK are spinning dangerously close to revisiting some of the chords of The Troubles as “Brexit” swirls;

– Ukraine just voted in the first round of its presidential elections, handing a comedian (who plays the President on TV) a first round lead that doubles that of the incumbent president, amidst a backdrop of a simmering military conflict with Russia and torn between a Europe whose identity is shifting in uncomfortably murky directions and the old Soviet totems;

– Northern Canada grapples with climate change, food insecurity, energy prices, suicide, housing and many other compounding challenges;

– The U.S. grapples with a “very stable genius” running the country and the opening-up of fault lines ; and,

– Right here in Canada, well, there always seems to be a lot going on in our politics and society.

Expect me to offer my anecdotes, experiences and – perhaps most importantly – my learnings and overhearings from those living those various realities full-time.

I’ll start with what’s most fresh, the Ukraine, and work and wend my way through threads that feel or seem relevant or interesting.

If you think others might find interest in these musings and sharesies, please encourage them to sign up here: http://fisherwick.ca/thoughtsndots/ (and scroll to the bottom).

Paul

Minority Rules

This is the first general election in Nova Scotia that I have sat-out, or had no role other than as an interested citizen, in nearly twenty years. Even as we age, we never stop having new experiences, I guess.

As I’ve listened to the analysis, and public domain opinion polls reporting a likely minority government outcome in NS – and the news out of British Columbia in the last 36 hours on the newly-minted minority-government-to-be – my thoughts lept back a decade.

While I was working for the then-Opposition leader, I decided to do my Master of Arts in Political Science, part-time. I chipped away at it over a few years, and when it came time to do my thesis, I chose to do an analysis of “What Makes Minority Government Work”, drawing lessons from the 1998-99 and 2003-06 minority governments in NS.

It wasn’t only a “thing” in NS at the time. One also existed Federally, and there were three other provinces with minority governments. It felt a little like the equivalent of a political plague no sitting government wanted to catch.

Here are the five factors I drew out, from interviews with six former party leaders and their senior staff that influence whether a minority government can be made to work.

1. How the minority came to be.

There’s that old aphorism – where you’re going in life depends on where you came from. In this case, the genesis of the government is important to its outlook – is it a party dropping from majority to minority, and on political life support…or another party joyously forming a new government? Do the parties accept/embrace the legitimacy of the result? Do they have (and did they have the foresight to keep?) experienced staff? How deep is the talent pool in their caucus.

2. What the parties perceive to be the value of cooperation.

This is a question of both form and function. Cooperating is one thing, but whether that is through a formal deal or on an issue-by-issue basis matters, because the ink is barely dry on any agreement before “events my friend, events”, intervene. The relative comfort-level of each of the participating parties is important, too. Will the governing party act like they own the place, or be gracious hosts who are willing and able to share credit and bite their tongue? And how will voters treat either obstreperous or magnanimous behavior among the parties/leaders.

3. The state of existing inter-party dynamics.

The parties have to be able to speak a common language; this can’t be a Women are from Venus, Men are from Mars moment. So do they have established relationships of trust and/or respect? Are their friendships that can be leveraged? Does the supporting party believe they will be sidelined or treated as a junior partner? What are the shared – and/or opposing – policy and/or political interests?

4. The tolerance for the minority’s existence/continuation by the caucus’, parties and the public.

These three distinct but important groups each have different – and often conflicting – views that bear on the outcome of any minority. Political caucus’ are notoriously fickle, and not only have to juggle job security considerations, but are also the “front-line” in receiving public feedback; whether they live in the oblivious ‘bubble’ or the real world is crucial. The party apparatus of each major party is primarily concerned with the practical – can we afford to run a competitive general election campaign, do we have the infrastructure and people in place, etc. And the public, who public opinion says have been generally supportive of minority governments in Canada over time, basically expect people to act like grown-ups and cooperate.

5. The effect of agency (e.g. the players/personalities).

The personalities of the leaders are key. How new or experienced they are matters, and what role(s) they have played in the past helps prepare them for the work of a minority. Who leaders surround themselves with is also highly influential. The reality is that people are people, and people run governments. A minority government can feel a bit like walking around tightly holding political/policy grenades with the pin pulled. In reality, it should be treated more like a sheet of ice in Winter – slips and falls happen, but if you tread carefully and deliberately, crossing is fairly straightforward. Temperament, experience and wisdom play as great a role as anxiety, impatience and arrogance.

Let’s be clear – there are myriad factors about how things can work, for how long…and why, or why not. The above, however, holds true today as both a framework to understand and predict how workable a minority will or could be today, particularly in Nova Scotia.

These factors vary from the very practical – such as weekly meetings of all three leaders’ Chiefs of Staff, operating under a ‘no surprises’ dictum when it comes to government policy. To the very human – not making threats you are not prepared, or that it is not advisable, to follow through on. The annals of legislative politics are littered with hot-headed reactions and statements, and bluster. These have no functional place in a minority government.

In NS one of the key factors folks cited in the 2003-06 minority work was that John Hamm was the first – and at that point, only – party leader to have held every one of the three leadership roles in the Legislature (Leader of the Third Party, Leader of the Official Opposition, and Premier). Hamm himself, and his former Chief of Staff Jamie Baillie, both cited this in interviews as a factor in the perspective and demeanour in leading a minority government from 2003-06.

Fun fact – there is one other party leader returned to this new Legislature who holds the same distinction as John Hamm did, having served in all three leadership roles: Stephen McNeil.

And, who is the leader of the Official Opposition? That same former Chief of Staff to John Hamm, Jamie Baillie – a person who has held two of those three roles (so far…?), and who was credited with helping run an effective minority from 2003-06.

So what do the days to come hold?   Lots and lots of grand statements of transparent and cooperative intent, and closed-door strategy sessions.  Lots of media speculation and navel-gazing.

One safe prediction – though – they don’t involve another election anytime soon.

There’s always an 11th round

 

A family in Kathputli Colony (called Kathputli "Slum"​ by locals and authorities) in New Delhi, India. I took this photo in Feb 2017 while touring the area with a local resident. The residents are facing eviction by the city...11th round to follow.

 

There are probably a million variations on the theme – the most prolific of which has to do with not burning a bridge you may want or need to walk across some day.

We can probably all remember being told as young as elementary school, after a playground encounter or classroom outburst, some variation of this aphorism.

In a context equally applicable in life and in business – and with a little more nuance than the idea of lighting up a bridge and warming yourself on the flames – I heard it expressed in negotiation terms – “…there’s always an 11th round.”

A few years back, one of the experts at the Harvard Program on Negotiation opened the program with this phrase.

What I took him to mean was essentially this (to borrow a phrase from the late, great Stuart McLean): the universe is not big, but it’s small. Or, more to the point, your universe is never as big as you think or might like to believe.

The likelihood that you will come directly, or indirectly, in contact with a “former” counter-party, colleague or friend is high enough as to outweigh the inevitably transient feeling of whatever epic smack-down; overtly hostile, patriarchal or smug comment; or “extra juice” you choose to extract from someone over whom you hold advantage or sway.

Like all humans, I’ve fallen victim to believing I roam in a universe big enough to allow me the luxury of acting like an a** on one-too-many occasions. And, like all of us, I’ve walked into that “11th round” and endured the discomfort, dissatisfaction or outright shame about my behaviour during some part of rounds 1-10 with that individual.

Dealing with those moments can be tender to be sure. But avoiding them in the first place is a lot easier…than taking a gamble on whether and when we will end-up in round #11.

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Shout-out of the week

The wonderful folks at the Springtide Collective in Nova Scotia have undertaken a much-needed project, called “On the Record, Off Script”. What is it? Simply put, it’s a series of exit-interviews with former Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) about their work, roles and the state of democracy in Canada’s oldest responsible government (1848).

In my humble opinion, it’s worth considering two things:

1) Subscribing to the Podcast on the medium of your choice; and,

2) Donating to help them continue this important work. I have no doubt we will all be in their debt someday.

Expanding my “Pitching Repertoire”

Sports are great for the metaphors.

How many times have you heard someone bring a point home (see what I did there…?) with a great metaphor from the world of sports?

As I gathered with hundreds of other people touched by the life and legacy of one awesome human being last week, one of his great friends (and eulogists) told a story that has caused me to reflect; a lot.

It has to do, fundamentally, with what’s in one’s “pitching repertoire” – what kinds of pitches do we (and, maybe more importantly, can we) throw?

Some of us can throw a mean fastball (pssst….type A people, that’s us). Maybe we get a little too used to that, and have lost the ability (if we ever had it) to toss a change-up, throw a slider, flip in a knuckleball or let a curve ball rip.

We tell ourselves it’s okay to be a one-pitch-johnny/jane in our increasingly specialized world…it’s what makes us effective and sets us apart from the crowd, that wicked fastball; right?

For me, the loss of a person who was intentional about how and when to throw what kind of a pitch – and who made so many lives better for it – is a good occasion to take stock of my own ‘pitching’ abilities.  I’ve found it helpful to think about it this way: what is in our pitching repertoire matters everywhere we are present. It matters in everyday interactions in a coffee shop; with family, friends and kids; sitting across the table from tough counterparties or important big-wigs; or just being one of the crowd in life.

And not because we want to be Machiavellian and manipulate people to our own ends by throwing just the right pitch at the right moment. But because when you practice something authentically and often it will come instinctively, and open up opportunities that would otherwise not have existed.

The result of this assiduous practice for my late friend enabled a kind of human connection, and personal and professional achievement, that illustrates what’s possible in a life truly, well and richly lived.

So as the Spring thaw sets in, whether you’re a baseball fan or not, maybe this is a good time for us all to pick up a ball, rub on some A535, warm up the arm and practice a few of our most underused pitches.

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Shout-out of the week:

A good friend sent me a podcast recommendation this week – and I offer it up for your consideration. Of particular interest to me was the recent one focusing on the Northern Irish community of Corymeela, where my cousin has worked, and beside which I often jog when visiting my father’s family home in Ballycastle.

Note: I snapped the photo for this article inside an abandoned building at the edge of Rathlin Island, across the strait from where Corymeela is located, while on a visit home about this time of year in 2015.

Let Them Learn From Our Example(s): Time for a Christmas Cool-off

What is it that we wish most for our children in life? Health and happiness. Fulfillment and joy. Challenge and opportunity.

If the youngest among us learn by example, then what are they to take from the past number of days’ events involving the Government and the Nova Scotia Teacher’s Union (NSTU)? If you can answer that question without a look of deep and pained confusion on your face, I’ll buy you one of those fancy coffee drinks they only make at Christmas.

There have been barbed, pointed and angry comments about the Government’s moves that – their spokespeople say – were designed to ensure student safety during a planned work-to-rule by teachers; moves which, let’s be honest, have come off looking ham-fisted at best.

There has been hand-wringing, scratching of heads and accusations that the NSTU is continually raising the bar, seeking to maintain gold-plated benefits and get a wage settlement that the province cannot afford, and to which the vast majority of Nova Scotians could not lay claim.

On Monday, Nova Scotia became a national news story because, depending which narrative you believed, students were either unfairly “locked out” of their schools for the first time ever, or teachers were threatening to “leave them unsafe”.

The narrative extremes – and the actions they set in motion – serve to bring no one closer to a solution, and they shed no light for the many parents and Nova Scotians not privy to the discussions at or around the bargaining table. They just want this whole saga to go away.

And the cold, wintry reality is that we are an ultra-marathon further away from a negotiated solution than we were at this time last week.

The conditions precedent to a constructive dialogue, leading to a contract proposal which stands an odds-on chance of being ratified by NSTU members and adopted by the provincial Cabinet have gone south, just like the snowbirds.

So is it time to shrug our shoulders, and dig in for a long, hard winter of labour discontent, hardening resolve and an epidemic of stress throughout our school-aged children?

That’s hardly the example our children deserve.

Although a “charitable spirit” has not been much in evidence over the past week in this dispute, the parties would do well to offer all Nova Scotians this early Christmas present, in three hard but necessary steps:

  • Agree to a cooling-off period. To be effective, it needs to include a suspension of work-to-rule and a commitment to no government/legislative action against teachers. It should last long enough to allow the parties to do their homework, and begin to re-engage constructively in the New Year.
  • Get down to work on their homework:
    1. For the NSTU, the kaleidoscope-of-demands at the bargaining table, with no real evidence that the bargaining committee knows what the members want, has to stop. They don’t get to blame the government they need to own the fact that they have been tin-eared to their membership. Extensive consultation is required, which should include helping to close the gap between ambition and reality among their membership. There needs to be a (no-doubt difficult) reconciliation of what NSTU members want, and what it is they can fairly achieve through negotiation. If the emphasis is not on wages and benefits, but on working conditions – as every teacher I have spoken with claims – then all the time and money needs to be focused on that. If the emphasis is, in fact, more on wages and maintenance of certain benefits – then it’s time to drop the contrivance and say so.
    2. For the Government, they have internal consultation of their own to do. It’s fine for politicians not to want to “let down their side” publicly, and pledge fealty to their boss (no matter how far they have strayed off course). The clear reality on Monday pointed to strong currents of disagreement within the government caucus, which means they have work to do. The $10 million pot of money with a promise to address working conditions has been clearly rejected as a pig in a poke – concrete measures with a start date and implementation plan are required to overcome the deficit of trust made worse by this week’s events. The contrivance that some of these “working conditions” are not within the Collective Agreement, and should therefore be dealt with later is just that – a contrivance.
  • Develop an agreed schedule of talks that begin sometime into the New Year, with a commitment to stay at the table – and keep the cooling-off period in force – while students get educated, and the parties work-through matters with a renewed focus and internal mandates which better reflect where the parties want to end up.

The educational challenges in the classroom and in our schools are real. Teachers deserve our respect for the work that they do, and the care they provide, to our children and youth every day. My father-in-law retired from teaching 20 years ago, and continues to be approached by former students about the extent of the impact he had on their lives and development, often to his great surprise.

The financial challenges we have as a province are also very real. To dismiss them out of hand, and to ignore the debt-burden of the province and the high level of taxation we pay, is to do a disservice to these same youth and children; for they will inherit a rusting hulk of a province if we can’t keep an eye to the future when making financial decisions today.

As a parent I can definitively say that this dispute – and the current work-to-rule action – is impacting our children, and not for the better. 

It needs to stop, and fast. Children thrive in a predictable, consistent environment where expectations are clear and trust is built through following through: what they expect from their teachers, and what their teachers expect of them.

This situation did not develop overnight. Solving it overnight is neither realistic nor plausible. But ending the blame game, rolling up some sleeves and making an honest start – without suspending our students in the middle – is an example our kids will learn from.