Canada

BITTERSWEET MEDICINE

Hamm has a prescription for curing Nova Scotia’s ills. Not everyone’s willing to swallow it

SHERRI AIKENHEAD July 23 2001
Canada

BITTERSWEET MEDICINE

Hamm has a prescription for curing Nova Scotia’s ills. Not everyone’s willing to swallow it

SHERRI AIKENHEAD July 23 2001

BITTERSWEET MEDICINE

Canada

SHERRI AIKENHEAD

in Halifax

John Hamm is an early-to-bed, early-to-rise kind of guy. But for several days in late June. the Nova Scotia premier's tidy regimen was seriously disrupted. He and his fellow Progressive Conservatives were

sitting round the clock in the legislature, intent on passing one of the country’s toughest anti-strike bills. Hamm was (and still is) determined to eliminate the province's $90-million deficit, and giving in to health-care workers’ demands for better pay was no way to achieve that goal. So on June 14, the Tories had introduced Bill 68, which would take away the right to strike of many health-care workers and allow cabinet to set the terms of their contracts.Tempers flared, health-care workers staged a twoday walkout and Hamm came under relentless siege from both the public gallery and the opposition

benches. “The attack was always on him,” notes Education Minister Ja ne Purves. Still, he never wavered, and on June 27 the government passed Bill 68.

The victory was short-lived. Almost immediately, health-care workers threatened to walk off the job en masse. Within the week, some 1,450 nurses signed letters of resignation, which their union chiefs had in hand, ready to submit. Only then, when confronted with the spectre of a completely crippled health-care system, did the former doctor-Hamm was a general practitioner for 30 years in rural New Glasgow-back down. He agreed to send the labour dispute to binding arbitration, which will supersede the controversial bill’s provisions.

Hamm may have lost this particular battle, but his supporters believe he will win a war that means even more to him-restoring Nova Scotia’s status as one of the “have” provinces. “I don’t know how history will judge us on the health-care issue, but he’s trying to do what's right,” says Purves, a former journalist who cites Hamm as the reason she entered politics two years ago. “For him, this issue is emblematic of what he wants

Hamm has a prescription for curing Nova Scotia’s ills. Not everyone’s willing to swallow it

to accomplish overall. If he can’t balance the budget, then he won’t have accomplished what he set out to do.”

Since becoming premier in 1999, Hamm has shown a willingness to tackle tough issues. He’s trimmed the travel expenses of politicians and bureaucrats alike and enacted a law against Sunday shopping. He refused to give in to a California company’s demands to change the terms of a pipeline contract to bring natural gas to Nova Scotia homes, telling them to go through regulatory channels. He has also taken on Ottawa in the hopes of getting a better deal from the federal transfer scheme.

Still, Hamm is in many ways an unlikely crusader. First elected in the northern Nova Scotia riding of Pictou Centre in 1993, he was widely expected to be just a

caretaker when he took over leadership of the third-place Conservatives in 1995. But later that year, he led them to official Opposition status, and in 1999 they formed the government. During an in-

terview with Macleans in his Halifax office, Hamm acknowledged politics is tougher than medicine. “Every day as a politician there are people who want to lead you down roads you’re not comfortable with,” he says. “You have to ask yourself, ‘Am I a leader, or am I a follower?’ ”

Hamm is, to all appearances, someone who prefers to carve out his own path. Born in New Glasgow in 1938, he earned his medical degree from Dalhousie University in Halifax, then began practising medicine in his home town and in nearby Stellarton. He and his wife of 38 years, Genesta Harding, have two children and three grandchildren. And even as house-call-making doctors became a near-extinct species, he made such visits right up until the time he entered politics. When he switched careers, says Don Mclnnes, a former MLA who attended Hamm’s first nomination meeting, he certainly didn’t do it for the money. “He’s probably got the original nickel he made,” Mclnnes says. Hamm, in fact, didn’t use a

credit card until he became a politician and had to pay for travel with it.

Hamm, a lifelong teetotaller, is anything but a back-slapping politician. He also has an unusual effect on those working for him. “He’s so virtuous, no one wants to disappoint him,” says one of the senior bureaucrats in his government. “He’s the kind of man you want to respect you.”

His political opponents, however, view his earnest convictions in a different light. They complain about his autocratic style of running the government, his unwillingness to consult with voters and interest groups, his penchant for reducing complex issues into stark questions of right and wrong. “This countrydoctor image is carefully cultivated,” says provincial NDP Leader

Darrell Dexter. “But Bill 68 showed the province that this is a premier with a very hard edge.”

These days, however, Hamm is worried less about winning popularity contests than winning respect for his home province. “Nova Scotia,” he notes, “has not been on the radar screen in Ottawa for some time.” To rectify that, since January, he’s made house calls to Ottawa, Toronto and Calgary, where he complained that for every dollar Nova Scotia’s new offshore oil and gas industry generates over the next 30 years, 81 cents will end up in the federal coffers. Nova Scotia, his argued, deserves a greater share of the revenues.

At first, skeptical Bluenosers merely wished him luck as he went cap in hand to the Liberals. But then he enlisted the help of former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed, the original blue-eyed sheik, whose battles over oil revenues led to a 1981 accord requiring Ottawa to negotiate prices and revenues, instead of setting them unilaterally as it had previously done. Now, he’s

advising the Hamm government and lobbying Ottawa. Suddenly, Hamm’s Campaign for Fairness didn’t sound so corny.

Equally important, people outside Nova Scotia began paying attention. In June, Alberta Premier Ralph Klein shocked many Maritimers when he paid a courtesy visit and threw his support behind Hamm’s fairness campaign. Equally surprising was how quickly a Liberal stalwart, former New Brunswick premier Frank McKenna, dispensed with partisanship to praise Hamm’s efforts at getting a better deal. “His campaign strikes a chord with Canadians who recognize there’s something fundamentally wrong,” McKenna says of Hamm. “On this issue, I think he’s on the right track.”

But in the absence of that sweeter offshore deal for Nova Scotia, Hamm’s primary political track record may be that of the politician who took on the health-care workers—and lost. To some, his hardline stand may have

been the biggest miscalculation of his career. “The government’s support is primarily in the rural areas,” says Leonard Preyra, a political science professor at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax. “But this legislation struck a nerve with people all across the board.” One government MLA voted against the bill and others were clearly uncomfortable with it. Purves recalls overhearing Hamm trying to explain to an NDP opponent in the legislature hallways why Bill 68 was so important. Hamm described an ugly strike at the Aberdeen Hospital in that small town in 1975 and insisted public lives were at risk. “Families were arguing who should get treatment at the hospital and who shouldn’t,” Purves recalls Hamm saying. Adds Purves: “I thought it was quite revealing because then I understood his emotional attachment to the issue.” But lofty ideals don’t always count for much in politics, a notion Hamm may be too high-minded—or highhanded—to accept.