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Policy, criticism, and deficit Dexter talks tough

After his first full year in office, Premier Darrell Dexter says he’s gained quite a perspective on the difference between being in power and being in opposition.

After his first full year in office, Premier Darrell Dexter says he’s gained quite a perspective on the difference between being in power and being in opposition.

“I can’t remember who, but somebody said years ago the worse possible training for government is opposition,” laughed Dexter. “And there’s an element of truth to that.”

Reflecting on the past year from his office on the top floor of One Government Place, Dexter said it is much more complicated to develop policies and initiatives than to simply criticize everything that comes from the government of the day.

“The answers in opposition are very simple, and they’re designed to be a sound bite. When you’re in government, everything you do requires a firm public policy underpinning, it affects the budgets of departments,” said Dexter.

“It is sometimes frustrating to have a well-thought-out, well-constructed public policy piece to go up against a slogan on a billboard.”

Dexter admits, however, that he and his party were no strangers to sound bite sniping pre-June 2009, when his party swept to power.

“(Policy) has the value of consultation, the investment of resources, and (slogans are) simply designed for political impact. And we were pretty good at the latter. I mean, we knew it pretty well. But it is a different thing when you’re in government.”

Political gamesmanship aside, Dexter said there is a real danger to dealing with criticism on a daily basis.

“It is often difficult to recognize what criticism is genuine, and what criticism is manufactured,” he said. “If you just see a lot of it all the time, you can become desensitized to the real genuine concerns that people have. That’s why it’s very important for my caucus and my cabinet ministers that they be out in their communities, that they don’t spend all their time in their offices.”

The past year certainly held its share of criticism for the government — from the February’s MLA expense scandal to July’s HST increase and December’s opposition filibuster of changes to the Labour Act.

The first six months of the year were particularly arduous according to Dexter, but he feels his government is better for getting through them.

“It meant that some of the toughest days for political people took place very early on. I think it made our caucus members stronger, I think it made the cabinet members stronger,” said Dexter.

“They got through those difficult days and I think emerged on the other side with a clearer sense of who they were and what they wanted to accomplish.”

Dexter preferred to focus on the past six months — noting highlights like the Daewoo-Trenton wind turbine plant, the multibillion-dollar energy deal between Nova Scotia Power and Newfoundland’s Nalcor, the response to John Ross’ emergency room report, and the agreement between Halifax Regional Municipality and the province on the proposed downtown convention centre.

“When you’re first starting these things, they’re kind of in the aether, and you kind of don’t know how they’re going to manifest themselves,” said Dexter.

But Dexter thinks some of his government’s policy priorities are finally starting to fall into place.

“You’ve seen a lot of pieces of public policy that have come forward in, I think, a very, very thoughtful and progressive manner.”

Of course, those policies are also open to criticism. Dexter relates a story of a conversation he had with former Halifax mayor Allan O’Brien when Dexter was serving on Dartmouth City Council. When faced with a tough decision on council, Dexter sought O’Brien’s advice.

“He said if you do things for the right reasons, you will never have to wonder why you did it. Years later, when somebody asks you to justify a decision, he said you will forget all the circumstances around it, but if you did it for the right reasons, that’s what you’ll remember.”

“If you personally feel comfortable that you are doing the right thing for the right reasons, that makes all the difference in the world.”

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