It was, if nothing else, compelling political theatre. Even on Channel 95 in cable’s nosebleed section. And even allowing for our legislative television channel’s blandly annoying alternating medium-close-up head shots of questioner followed by witness followed by questioner.
Although the static camera never strays, never zooms tight on the eyes of the witness so we can actually see the wary combativeness we sense in her voice, or pulls back to show us the ornate legislative chamber-stage that serves as the backdrop for this political morality play, this particular drama was still palpable.
It was the morning of Wednesday, Nov. 2. Heather Foley Melvin — former Mazda Canada regional manager, former defeated Conservative federal candidate, former PC Party of Nova Scotia president, former strategist for leadership candidate Rodney MacDonald and then (barely four months into that job and just a week after last spring’s provincial election) the suddenly also former chief of staff to Premier Rodney MacDonald — had been called to appear before the legislature’s Public Accounts Committee.
The committee wanted to know how Foley Melvin, in the space of one brief, hour-long conversation with the premier had been relieved of her chief-of-staff job and handed a new, just-as-well-paying one as the boss of an agency that didn’t exist, and for which she had no obvious qualifications.
The answer to the question, of course, was just as obvious. Nova Scotians didn’t need a two-hour committee hearing to catch the whiff — no, make that the stench — of blatant political patronage.
That said, Foley Melvin’s appearance was entertaining in a train-wreck kind of way. And instructive.
Foley Melvin herself was, by turns, beleaguered, belligerent and brittle as she tried what Rodney MacDonald had attempted with such spectacular un-success during the last election campaign — to stay on message.
When NDP MLA Graham Steele, playing the relentlessly stern prosecutor, asked her — for the second time — what was said during that conversation with the premier in which she’d simultaneously been fired and hired, Foley Melvin stuck to rote: “I agreed during that conversation to implement and create Conserve Nova Scotia.”
“Okay,” Steele tried again, “but that’s not what I asked you.”
“That’s my answer,” she didn’t answer again.
“That’s not what I asked you…”
And so it went.
Liberal MLA Leo Glavine’s more avuncular approach got him no closer to a real answer. Nor did Steele’s NDP colleague, Dave Wilson, have better luck playing the good cop. The comic relief, of course, came from the Tory members who lobbed fluff-ball questions that appeared — from the number of times they consulted their notes — to have been prepared in advance for them.
It might have been possible to dismiss all of this as simple political theatre if not for a single moment of high — and telling — drama near the end of the two hours.
Liberal MLA Stephen McNeil, whose long suit on this morning was righteous indignation, asked Foley Melvin if, as the head of Conserve Nova Scotia, she supported the premier’s announcement the day before, offering Nova Scotians an eight per cent tax rebate on the cost of home heating oil and electricity.
The question was important to understanding how Foley Melvin sees herself and her new agency in relation both to the issue of energy conservation and also to the government of the day.
Whatever the political merits of the rebate scheme, it is bad energy policy. It will not do what Conserve Nova Scotia was set up to encourage, which was, in the words of Premier MacDonald, to ”put a greater emphasis on energy efficiency and conservation.” In fact, it will have the opposite effect.
Foley Melvin, who seemed strangely blindsided by such an obvious question, stumbled and didn’t even offer a rote answer.
McNeil tried again. Same non-answer. And again. And again.
Finally, after the seventh do-you-or-don’t-you question, Foley Melvin finally blurted out: “I support the government of Nova Scotia.”
And there, in a nutshell, was everything that is wrong with the appointment of a political hack to a job that should matter to all Nova Scotians. And not just to the government of her patron.
Stephen Kimber, the Maclean Hunter Professor of Journalism at the University of King’s College, is the author of five nonfiction books as well as, Reparations, a novel published this spring by HarperCollins.