November 23, 2001 Halifax Herald

Hamm and company: responsible governance

On October 24, 2001, I had an early-morning, light breakfast at One Government Place with Premier John Hamm. The purpose was to chat about his political career and goals. Based on it, and info garnered from independent sources, I offer the following review and performance rating.

When novice Hamm first arrived on the political scene a little over eight years ago, I wouldn't have given him the proverbial snowballs chance of becoming premier. He came across as someone uncomfortable with politics - not fired up in the least by dreams of political grandeur. This was attributable to the fact that his entry into politics wasn't motivated by a desire to fulfil a personal political goal, but to try to help a prominent friend, Premier Donald Cameron, enact his enlightened reform agenda. In fact, it was Cameron's reform vision that enabled him to persuade John to offer in the 1993 election.

Although Cameron and Hamm won their seats, the voters had other ideas. Still fuming over the financial mess left behind by the Buchanan government, they defeated the Tories. Don resigned, setting the stage for the 1995 leadership convention that elevated the political novice he had recruited to party leader.

It was at a function shortly thereafter that I first heard John make a major political speech. His sincerity came through in spades; but his delivery was so bad, it made me squirm in my seat. He read it off word for word, flatly, no ad libbing. The experience was akin to a lay person being obliged to suffer a mechanic's hour-long oral report about the advantages of a new gearbox. Not a trait that bode well for a successful political career.

Afterwards, not being as "mellow" or as "sensitive" as I now am, I related to John that he had laid an egg and would continue to do so until he could deliver a speech without sounding like he was delivering a litany. Surprisingly, seeing as I hardly knew him at the time, my less than glowing assessment was received for what it was meant to be; constructive. This response instilled in me a genuine liking for him, because I'm not overly fond of individuals whose egos cause them to believe that they already have all the answers - they usually see advice from mere mortals as an affront.

Since that event, Hamm has improve his approach. Although he has not transformed into a message-delivering giant in the image of Churchill, he can now get messages across without boring audiences to death. Not an easy achievement for a man who is still essentially a courteous country doctor.

The March 24, 1998, election saw John lead the Tories to a 3rd-place finish. However, it wasn't all bad; the Liberals didn't win a majority and the party wound up holding the balance of power. But it was a wake-up call that nudged the party to begin immediate preparations for the next election - priority being placed on developing new ideas and recruiting new faces. To accommodate renewal, most of the old guard gallantly dropped out.

The wisdom of this course was soon apparent. In early 1999, the government fell and new elections were called. During the heat of the campaign, I chanced one day to meet John outside the legislature on Hollis Street and offered him congratulations for what I thought, based on a sense that the political winds had changed dramatically since 1998, would be a majority win. He, with customary caution and humility, thought there might be an outside chance for first place, but second was more likely.

My prediction was on target - a majority Tory government was sworn in on August 16, 1999. In retrospect, I believe that most Nova Scotians were then looking for a miracle. Provincial finances were in a frightful mess and getting worse, and no one knew exactly how bad things were. Thus, they opted to trust Hamm to provide them with truthful answers.

Predictably, he has not been able to fulfil hopes for a miracle. However, his government's policies have put Nova Scotia well on the way to financial stability. This has included reforming bookkeeping practices to include all assets and liabilities - providing a true picture of treasury finances. And, true to his word, Hamm has had the courage to do something that no other premier has dared do; put an end to the tax-eating Sydney Steel Mill.

During his first two years, as is normal when a proactive agenda is undertaken, Hamm has had some bumps. For instance, the health care worker wage dispute could have been handled better. However, the government's declaration that the province couldn't afford what was being demanded was right on.

The dispute and its aftermath highlighted an interesting human paradox: During it, a profusion of people demanded that the workers be given everything they wanted. The fact that the province had, and has, no room left to raise revenue by taxation to cover increased expenditures, only cutbacks, didn't seem to click in. Now that the chickens have come home to roost and the needed cutbacks are being made, many of them are now protesting longer line ups and less service.

For having the courage to implement the tough policies needed to stabilize the province's finances, in spite of possible negative political consequences, I give John an A- performance rating and his colleagues a B+. Although some try to paint it otherwise, they are providing honest, responsible governance!

Daniel N. Paul


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