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Ex-Nova Scotia finance minister shows distaste for politics in new book

Former Finance Minister Graham Steele arrives at a news conference as he releases a fiscal update in Halifax on Monday, Aug. 19, 2013.


Graham Steele describes himself as a wannabe law professor who took a "wrong turn into politics," spending 15 years in the game and becoming so disillusioned he wrote a book.

It is not pretty.

What I Learned about Politics is one part Politics for Dummies and the other a very long exit interview, in which Mr. Steele, the former NDP finance minister from Nova Scotia who famously resigned his post to sit on the backbench, provides a brutally candid assessment of what it is like to serve in a Canadian legislature.

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"Looking back, I like so many people got into politics thinking I knew a lot," the 50-year-old first-time author told The Globe and Mail. "What I knew a fair bit about was public policy – and what it takes you a long time to learn is how public policy gets twisted and distorted and eventually you get taken over by the desire to win, to be re-elected."

Politics, he writes, is a "low, dirty business" and a "charade," with roles dictating actions – ideas or ideology do not matter.

"… There was hardly any point to who sat in my chair or who was on which side of the House. None of us was dealing with the real issues. There was no fundamental difference between us," he writes.

Set in Nova Scotia, the experiences he describes could be those of any politician in any legislature in the country, including the House of Commons.

"What I am trying to do in the book is to point out to people how deep and tenacious the political culture is and why it ends up controlling people who go into politics with the best of intentions," Mr. Steele said. "But the first step in dealing with that culture is to describe it."

In one section, "The Rules of the Game," Mr. Steele lists the 10 rules that he says all politicians live by – No. 1 is to get re-elected: "Like the sex drive among primates, the drive to be re-elected drives everything a politician does," he writes. Second is "spend as little time as possible at the legislature. There are no voters there, so any time spent is wasted."

In addition, he writes, "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."

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"Fight hard to take credit, fight harder to avoid blame," is rule No. 9. As for No. 10: "Deny that these are the Rules of the Game."

Mr. Steele became an NDP MLA in 2001 after spending three years as a political staffer. He was eight years in opposition before the NDP formed government. In 2009, Darrell Dexter became premier and appointed Mr. Steele, a Rhodes Scholar and lawyer, his finance minister.

Three years later, however, Mr. Steele resigned, upset about the Premier not consulting caucus over a costly deal with health-care workers.

Resignations by senior ministers are disruptive for governments and their leaders. "This is going to kill us," were the first words out of then-premier Mr. Dexter's mouth when Mr. Steele told him he was resigning.

As for himself, Mr. Steele wrote: "I was a backbencher, and I was free." However, that sentiment was fleeting – as a backbencher, he was quickly "bored."

In the 2013 provincial election, meanwhile, the NDP was clobbered by the Liberals. Mr. Dexter even lost his seat; Mr. Steele did not run.

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