Q: Do you still find this job rewarding? Do you still want to be premier of Prince Edward Island?
A: Absolutely. It’s still a very rewarding job. Is it different than it was during my first-term? Absolutely.
In 2007, the economy was booming, we were looking at making huge investments. All of a sudden, in 2008 and 2009, we get hit worldwide with the worst recession since the Great Depression. It’s a much more difficult job today. But it’s still a rewarding job.
Q: How long do you want to do this for?
A: I’ll wait until I’m having more bad days than good days. We enjoy Prince Edward Island. I still enjoy being premier. I’ve got young kids. So we’re going to stay put for a while. I have no intention of leaving Prince Edward Island. This is my home. This is where I want to stay. As long as the voters are willing, I’ll still be around for a little while longer.
Q: Will Robert Ghiz lead the Liberal Party into the next election?
A: Absolutely. That is my intention for now. I really have no other ideas on my horizon.
Q: The P.E.I. government is looking at pushing back the October 2015 election. Why are you doing that?
A: The federal government set their fixed-election date for the same time. Now, the feds were looking at changing their date. In the meantime, there was a minority government in Ontario so it’s looking as if they are going to have an election sooner rather than later. Saskatchewan and Manitoba changed their legislation to state that if the two elections — federal and provincial — fall within the same timeline they would push their election back by six months.
Q: Why not, as suggested by the Opposition, look at moving it ahead six months?
A: We want to stay in line with the other provinces.
Q: How concerned are you that according to polls more than half of all P.E.I. residents are dissatisfied with your government’s performance?
A: It’s really indicative of what’s happening across our country. Every province, every jurisdiction — the federal government — we’re all going through difficult times. Does anyone like to see cuts? But everyone believes that we need to get our finances in order and we need to invest in social programs. So we’re making decisions today that we think will allow us to get to that point in the future.
Q: Are you confident you can turn those polling numbers around before the next election?
A: Well, you always hope so. We’re going to try our best.
Q: You’ve often said you know how difficult it is in Opposition because you were there. That being said, what do you make of what is currently happening with the Opposition Progressive Conservative Party?
A: Confusion would be my number one reaction. I’m not really sure who is going to be the leader of the Opposition. All political parties go through a rebuilding stage. Do I think the Progressive Conservative Party of Prince Edward Island is dead? No, I don’t. Do I think the federal Liberal party is dead? No, I don’t.
Q: What impact does a divided Opposition party have on government, or have on ordinary Islanders?
A: I would say minimal. From a government perspective, when I make a decision, I don’t ask ‘how’s the Opposition going to react to this?’ My number one thought is, ‘how is this going to affect Islanders?’ There are still Opposition parties that are holding government to account. There’s still the media that is holding government to account.
Q: This fall, your government passed legislation to bring a harmonized sales tax to the province. Why did your government tell Islanders in the lead up to the 2011 election campaign that it would not bring in the HST, then do the exact opposite?
A: First of all, you need to look directly at a lot of my quotes. A lot of my quotes were around we’re not going to bring in an HST if it’s going to affect low-income Islanders and if there is going to be a negative effect on home heating fuel and I did say electricity. But we always knew it was good public policy.
I know there was a lot of controversy out there saying that it was always in our plans and we were in negotiations. I can guarantee you I didn’t find out until after the election that we would even be able to exempt home heating fuel.
When I found that out it started to make more and more sense. We also were in a position where we needed more revenue ... We decided it was the best public policy decision to make but it was definitely not the best political decision to make. I’ll be the first person to admit that.
But we think it’s going to help our economy, it’s going to provide the additional revenue and we’re fairly confident that the rebates and the exemptions are going to help out low-income Islanders.
Q: But you did not exempt electricity from the HST?
A: Now, I know full well that we’re not exempting electricity and that is a major issue. I can totally understand that and I can relate to that. The argument that I will make would be this, if you look back to 2008, since then we’ve cut electricity rates by 14 per cent, we froze it for a two-year period.
If I told you back in 2008 that in 2013 you’d be paying approximately 2.8 per cent less for electricity than you were paying in 2008 you’d probably say I’ll take that.
Q: How much consideration was given to exempting electricity from the HST?
A: A lot — but there’s only a certain amount that we’re able to exempt as a province when we make our deal with the federal government. We had a lot of debate on this.
Q: Gas prices will be going up by about eight cents a litre on April 1, because of HST, electricity prices — still the highest in the country — will jump by more than 11 per cent so how can you say average Islanders are not going to be negatively impacted by the HST?
A: There is going to be a rebate system for those Island families that make under $55,000 a year. There are going to be some areas, like cable bills for example, where taxes will be going down.
Q: How surprised were you by the Opposition you faced to the expansion of the Trans-Canada Highway west of Cornwall, a project that soon became known as “Plan B”?
A: Quite surprised would be an honest answer. It’s been known the Trans-Canada Highway in Prince Edward Island is not up to national standards. The first route that we had chosen went through Strathgartney. I’ll be honest, when we first heard that I didn’t think it was a good idea. When the engineers came in and explained it to us — that we were actually going to enhance certain areas of the park and expand certain areas of the park — that made more sense.
Going to public consultations, we heard loud and clear people did not want Strathgartney messed with. I can relate to that. We listened to what the public said.
We made a decision we were going to move where the road was going to be built. I still remember, we had the Opposition that said ‘two thumbs up to the government for listening to Islanders’, you had The Guardian that wrote an editorial saying ‘government listened to Islanders,’ you had the leader of the Green Party that said ‘this could save the government come the next election.’
Q: But that praise didn’t last too long did it Mr. Ghiz?
A: There’s always going to be individuals that disagree. The part that I find disappointing is people saying we didn’t listen to them. We did listen. We moved it.
But I will say this, the people that are protesting have made government think long and hard about this. It’s not changing our mind but is it going to make us look at things from a more environmentally-friendly manner going into the future? Yes it will.
Q: In your bio online, it says “Robert and his government are now focused on creating jobs and the conditions that will foster economic growth for Prince Edward Island.” How are you creating the conditions that will foster economic growth?
A: One of the big things we’re doing is HST. We’ve heard that demand for a long time from our business community that they are at a competitive disadvantage. We’re also setting up a tax structure that is beneficial to businesses. We just extended our aerospace tax rebate system. Other things we’re working on are trade related. We know 80 per cent of our trade is going to the United States. We have to look at emerging sectors around the world.
Q: The economy worldwide is still fragile at best, what keeps you up at night? What is the great challenge facing P.E.I’s economy as we enter 2013?
A: We’re watching what is happening in the U.S. I’m more optimistic than perhaps some are. I think the U.S. economy is doing better, from some of the research that I am being presented with. Europe still seems to be in a difficult situation. But the overall Canadian economy has a huge impact on us.
Q: During your last economic update, you told Islanders the deficit actually grew to nearly $80 million. If the deficit continues to climb, how can you realistically balance the province’s books by 2015?
A: Very realistic as long as the economy does what we expect and as a government we’re able to rein in our spending. It’s a very simple model that we’re going with. We’re hoping that revenue will increase by a certain amount and our expenditures increase by less.
Q: Are more cuts coming in 2013?
A: We’re always looking for efficiencies within government. We’re looking at trimming our budgets within government. In terms of job losses, we’ve been pretty good as a province. Yes, there’s been some job losses in some areas like Transportation but overall it’s been through attrition. I would expect some changes into the future, it all depends on where the economy goes.
Q: There was no one story that created more headlines in 2012 than changes to EI and the potential impact of those changes in P.E.I. What impact will the changes to EI have on the Island?
A: Huge. It’s something that worries me. We really haven’t seen the reality of it yet. Because once these changes come in, and people’s EI starts to run out, but the jobs in our seasonal sectors are not ready to kick in yet, that’s where we’re going to have difficulty. I think it was short-sighted. It was not visionary, the changes that were made.
The federal government needs to realize that one-size does not fit all and that we are different across the country.
Broadcast dates A Conversation with Premier Robert Ghiz, The Guardian's year-end interview, will air on the following dates: Thurs, Dec 27, 8 pm Fri, Dec 28, 5 pm Sat, Dec 29, 11pm Sun, Dec 30, 11pm Mon, Dec 31, 9am, 5pm, 11pm Tues, Jan 1, 9am, 11pm Wed, Jan 2, 9am 5pm, 11pm Thurs, Jan 3, 9am, 5pm -
Q: You had a chance to meet with the prime minister to discuss your concerns about the changes his government has made to EI, did he understand your concerns?
A: Was I planning to change his mind right there? No. But what I’m hoping to do is plant the seeds that if he’s looking at changes in the future he’s got to realize that not all jurisdictions are the same across this country.
Q: In November, the Holman Grand closed. Homburg Invest Inc. still owns P.E.I. taxpayers $16 million. Sources back in November told The Guardian the province had reached a deal with Richard Homburg to buy back the hotel. But the province walked away from the deal. Why?
A: It’s not true. We have a lot of properties in downtown Charlottetown that do have a connection. What we’re trying to do is find a way that these entities can exist into the future but we’re dealing with companies based in Europe, we’re dealing with REITs based in Quebec. As of right now, things do seem to be up in the air but I am extremely confident that we’re going to get to a resolution on this that will be beneficial for the economy of Prince Edward Island and for the taxpayers. Hopefully, within the New Year, we’ll have some good news with regards to those properties.
Q: In January, you were named co-chair of the Council of the Federation Innovation Health Working Group along with Premier Brad Wall of Saskatchewan. Could this be Robert Ghiz’s legacy? Do you want to be the man who helps saves health care in Canada?
A: First of all I don’t think anyone is going to save health care. Health care is emerging and changing every single day. We’re never going to have a perfect health-care system but we can just try to have the best possible health- care system.
Q: The province is now holding consultations on future health-care changes. How drastic will those changes get as you try to come up with a plan to save health care here in P.E.I.?
A: I don’t think drastic changes are going to happen. Are there going to be minor changes? Absolutely. We’ve got an aging population and because of that we need more long-term care beds. Because we need more long-term care beds, there’s a lot of seniors that are taking up beds in the hospital that should be used for acute care. At the same time, we need more home care so we can keep seniors in their homes longer. That seems to be some of the main challenges that we’re having in our health- care system.
Q: On Dec. 16, 2006, while you were in Opposition, you said this about then Premier Pat Binns: “Unfortunately, we’ve seen a government that’s been in power now for 11 years and they’ve stopped consulting with Islanders. I think that is wrong.” Now, your government is facing similar criticism. How do you, as premier, ensure that you continue to stay in touch with Islanders.
A: Regardless of who’s in power after a certain amount of time that becomes an issue. The last question you just asked me was about our government going out and consulting with Islanders. You asked about Plan B before, and I mentioned how there was 10 public consultation meetings. We do a lot of consultations but the longer you are in power, the more decisions you make that perhaps people aren’t happy with. Wes Sheridan went across the province holding dozens of meetings over HST.
While there can be public consultation, there may not always be agreement.
Q: Why does the Liberal majority on legislative standing committees continue to put up roadblocks to bringing people like Melissa MacEachern before the public accounts committee to discuss concerns raised by the auditor general over the awarding of $8 million in tourism contracts?
A: As leader of the Opposition, and now as premier, I know when Opposition parties are looking to play politics. You know they are looking for the cheap headline. I’m not going to allow the bureaucracy to be taken advantage of. There are going to be times when we’re going to allow bureaucrats to present when we know it’s in the best interest of the public. When I think that the Opposition is just doing it to play games, we’re not going to allow that to happen.
And I’ll admit that when I was in Opposition, when we were calling certain people before committees, we were trying to play games. We were trying to get the headline out of The Guardian or out of the CBC.
Q: This year, your government rolled out plans for 2014, including a proposed budget that could top $75 million. Is this a party the province can afford?
A: That was a leaked document, a wish list. Our country was formed based on an initial meeting that was held right in this building where we are having this interview right now.
It’s important that we celebrate our history. It’s important that we celebrate our past. It’s important that we celebrate our future.
From that perspective, we are going to have celebrations in 2014 to recognize the 150th anniversary of the meeting that formed, in my opinion, the greatest country in this world.