Risky business | The Coast Halifax

Risky business

Bill Black is an experienced leader, but not an experienced politician. Is that enough to make him a premier?

You can almost hear the strains of a Johnny Cash tune when Tory leadership hopeful Bill Black saunters into the room. He’s dressed entirely in black. Black shoes. Charcoal pants. Black belt. Black shirt, loose fitting, open at the neck and perfectly ironed. Two identical gold pens peek from its pocket. The 54-year-old candidate also sports a gold neck chain, gold-rimmed glasses, a gold-and-silver watch and a gold wedding band. When my co-worker asks to snap his photo, he gives a firm “no” and offers some official campaign poses. Which is too bad, because Black looks pretty hip in his casual-but-careful black garb—like a cross between a TV talk-show host and a Bible-thumping preacher.

Black struggles to recall the last movie he saw, then suddenly remembers. Yes, it was the Johnny Cash biopic, but he didn’t like it much. “I loved the Lord of the Rings movies,” he says. “I loved Gandhi. I loved Amadeus. I loved Titanic. I mean, I like movies that really take advantage of the medium.”

Black and I are talking in a corner office at his campaign headquarters overlooking the Armdale Rotary. The large outer room seems bare despite a clutter of boxes filled with flyers, some tables, chairs and phones. Photocopies of favourable media stories and Bill Black campaign posters are taped to the cool pink walls. But the place seems temporary, as though busy people with important calls to make moved in a few days ago, with plans to relocate to nicer digs soon. Until then, the candidate in the corner office has to answer questions like, “What kind of music turns you on?” “Well, I really like Beethoven piano concertos,” Black answers gamely. “If you play piano badly, as I do, you realize just how enormously complex Beethoven is. It’s amazing someone can play it. It’s even more amazing that someone could write it.”

During our 40-minute interview, Black answers questions readily, but gives the impression he’d rather be doing something else— except when the subject shifts to insurance. His face lights up as he talks about his 34-year career at Maritime Life, where he worked his way from the mailroom to a nine-year stint as president. (He quit two years ago when Manulife Financial acquired the company and moved its head office to Ontario.) Black says his experience overseeing a big organization with thousands of employees sets him apart from Neil LeBlanc and Rodney MacDonald, the two career politicians who are also in the leadership race, which will be decided February 11 at the Tory convention.

“Running a big, complex organization is difficult. It isn’t something that you just come to naturally,” Black says. “I ran Maritime Life and it was very successful, not just financially, but as a place where we had very satisfied employees and satisfied customers.” The key to his success, he explains, was building great teams. “A lot of political leaders don’t understand the need to develop the people around them. What was really important was that the people throughout the organization, not just the senior management, were encouraged to bring forward their ideas and try them out.”

Black acknowledges that the provincial government is a much more complex organization than any private company. But he argues that his team-building approach would work in government as well. For one thing, he’d encourage health-care practitioners to come up with ideas to cut costs in a medical system that absorbs nearly half the provincial budget. He says too that the province could spend more on health promotion to fight obesity and encourage smokers to quit. Black’s nine years on the IWK hospital board taught him that health-care bureaucracies get in the way of efficiency. “What I’ve witnessed frequently is all kinds of wonderfully talented, committed health-care professionals taking too long to do things, not through any ill will, but just because the system got in their way.” The answer, he repeats, is to build trust with the pros, then encourage them to figure out new ways of doing things.

Black’s prescription for health care seems cautious and his emphasis on the need to keep balancing the provincial budget follows squarely in the tradition of John Hamm. In fact, Hamm’s name comes up several times during our conversation. When I ask for his position on raising welfare rates, which are now below what they were 16 years ago, Black mentions Hamm. “I’ve noticed that the premier has observed that what we do is inadequate,” he says, adding that Hamm had many difficult decisions to make in trying to balance the books. “And I do believe in balancing the books first and foremost, because if we don’t, we’re going to leave our children and grandchildren with lots of problems,” Black says. “In a civilized society, you don’t want to have people living in squalid conditions and that is a goal that I agree with. I don’t know enough about the topic to say more than that.” It’s clear from his answer, however, that balancing the books is one of Black’s main priorities. When I ask about raising minimum wages that are well below the StatsCan poverty line, Black says he sympathizes with the working poor who can’t live on what they’re making, but fears that higher minimum wages would kill jobs, especially in restaurants.

Black’s decidedly conservative views on social policy are not likely to hurt his chances at the convention next week. But his lack of experience as an elected politician may make some delegates think twice. If Black wins the Tory leadership, he’ll go directly into the premier’s office without having served a single day in the legislature. Black himself plays down his lack of experience. He suggests that managing the legislature wouldn’t be that difficult because “it only meets nine weeks a year or something like that.” Besides, he adds, John Hamm, Robert Stanfield and Danny Williams in Newfoundland had never served in cabinet before becoming premier. Hamm however, had six years of legislative experience; Stanfield seven and Williams two.

Some political experts see trouble ahead if Black wins. Agar Adamson, a retired Acadia political science professor who’s been watching Nova Scotia politics for nearly 40 years, says corporate boardrooms and the provincial legislatures are starkly different worlds. Adamson explains that survival in the legislature requires special skills. “It’s the cut and thrust of debate. There’s the need for compromise and balance. There’s the need to be very careful about what you say publicly. There’s the need to pander to the media. In the boardroom, you’ve just got to pander to the shareholders.”

Adamson compares Black to John Savage, who was forced to resign as Liberal leader and premier after only four years at the helm. “I think one of the problems that John Savage had was he walked into the legislature for the first time as premier,” Adamson says. “I don’t care what your background is with business or anything else, politics is a learning curve and I think if Savage had a little time to learn things, he might not have run into the problems he did.”

Jeffrey MacLeod, a political studies professor at Mount Saint Vincent University, also sees possible parallels between Bill Black and John Savage. It’s not enough for a premier to study policy, he says. The premier also has to be a people person adept at managing the legislative process while being sensitive to the moods of the electorate. “It’s not a job that’s very forgiving,” MacLeod adds. “It’s a mistake some business leaders make, thinking I can run a business, therefore, I can run a government.”

David Johnson, chair of the political science department at the University College of Cape Breton, likens the premier’s job to life in a fish bowl. “It’s one thing to have private-sector corporate experience and you may be very good in the boardroom, but you may not be very good at debate,” Johnson says. “Part of being a leader is that you have to stand up there and be the official spokesperson for your party and be able to engage in debate when the opposition is trying to play gotcha politics. They’re trying to trip you up, they’re trying to embarrass you. They’re trying to make you look bad.”

Jennifer Smith, a political science professor at Dalhousie, also sees sharp differences between business and politics. “The successful practice of democratic politics requires strong social and negotiation skills,” Smith says. “In the end, you have to persuade people to follow a track. You cannot issue orders to them. In big business, a CEO sits atop a command-control pyramid.” Smith adds, however, there’s no absolute rule that successful business leaders can’t make the leap to politics if they’re able to learn quickly and if they hire good advisers.

Agar Adamson and David Johnson see another potential problem for Bill Black, the only candidate who has lived all his life in Halifax. “Premiers don’t come from Halifax,” Adamson says bluntly. Johnson recites questions that Cape Bretoners often ask. “How well does he know rural Nova Scotia in general and Cape Breton in particular? He may be good for Halifax but will he be good for Cape Breton?”

Black’s lack of political experience showed last week during a debate in Kentville. The three candidates were asked for their positions on privatizing liquor stores. Black, who spoke first, said he saw no reason why the province is in the business of selling alcohol. He added that as long as the province could keep the same level of revenues, he’d be inclined to get rid of the government-run stores. Both Neil LeBlanc and Rodney MacDonald were quick to point out that the government had already studied the issue and had decided to introduce a mixed system of public and private ownership. LeBlanc cautioned that the issue is controversial and that it would take up time and energy that could be better spent on more important things. MacDonald warned that workers in the government stores would lose good-paying jobs, an issue of special concern in economically-depressed, rural areas. Unlike his opponents, Black didn’t seem to understand that privatizing liquor stores is a more complicated political issue than it appears to be.

When asked about his lack of political experience, Bill Black refers to the current premier’s career as a medical doctor. “I think John Hamm has proven that having success in another walk of life is probably a good thing before getting into politics rather than just being a career politician.”

Black says he’s preparing for the rigours of a political life by reading books such as Geoffrey Stevens’s biography of Robert Stanfield, who served as premier in the 1950s and ‘60s. When I ask what he learned from the book, Black replies, “One of the things that you accept when you get into public life is that it’s untidy. You don’t get to do everything the way you’d like to because of all the pressures.” Black says he learned something else too. “You really have to work at having your message clearly formed in your own mind and hopefully clearly communicated. And sometimes you have to shut up and say nothing because you really don’t have anything to say.”

The candidate in Black laughs modestly, but he knows that in his quest to win the premier’s job, he’ll be expected to say plenty.