© Guardian photo by Heather Taweel
Lt.-Gov. Frank Lewis, seated closes the fall sitting of the Prince Edward Island legislature Friday, Dec.6, as pages, clerk Charles MacKay and Speaker Carolyn Bertram look on.
The Ghiz government’s controversial pension reforms passed Friday in the P.E.I. legislature as the fall session came to a close.
The pension legislation was the most substantial and contentious bill debated in the House during the 16-day session.
Premier Robert Ghiz said he knows the changes were controversial among some unions in the province.
“We did our best in negotiating for 16 months to try and get everyone to agree, unfortunately that didn’t happen, but we’re very confident that this is the best way to go,” Ghiz said.
“At the end of the day it’s not something that we want to do, it’s something that we have to do.”
The Union of Public Sector Employees (UPSE) was leading the charge against the changes, alongside the Canadian Union of Employees (CUPE). They felt the reforms went too far and wanted government to adopt an alternate plan – one that would have included joint trusteeship of the pension fund.
But the P.E.I. International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) says it was never interested in joint ownership of the fund.
The IUOE issued a news release Friday saying government’s changes are more desirable than the alternate proposal put forward by UPSE and CUPE.
“Their counter proposal is built around the concept of ‘joint governance’. Joint governance may look like a simple and fair solution to the problem but on closer scrutiny, it has many drawbacks. One is that it exposes our members to significant cost increases,” said Lisa Ferguson, president of IUOE Local 942.
“I realize this has been a difficult exercise for all of us but our union believes that the steps being taken today by government will prove to be in the best interests of our members and their families for many years to come.”
Opposition Leader Steven Myers says he still believes the pension reforms anti-democratic.
“We still believe we did everything we could to stand for democracy and stand against the government’s plan to take democracy away.”
On Thursday evening, Myers tried to amend the pension legislation to exclude current retirees and those close to retirement.
He also tried to remove a clause in the act that gives government immunity over any future grievances or legal action over the pension changes.
Government defeated both amendments.
Aside from the pension bills, most other legislation was mainly minor bills of a housekeeping nature.
Ghiz said he felt it was one of the best sessions for debates on important issues. Addictions, lobster prices, treatment of autistic children in schools and educational outcomes are real issues of concern and worthy of debate, he said.
“It was a very constructive questioning in terms of where the government’s at and where we’re going.”
“Around addictions, just the debate on the floor, I think, was very important. It’s a very passionate issue… we made an investment this fall of $1.2 million and it’s something that we definitely want to deal with.”
Myers reiterated his disappointment that government will not commit to a youth addictions facility in P.E.I., but said they will continue to push the health minister on addictions.
“He now knows that he needs to start taking some action on this file, and simply talking about it isn’t going to be quite enough.”
During this session, Ghiz had a more conciliatory tone with the Opposition, often acknowledging criticism on any given issue as the Opposition simply doing its job.
He said this wasn’t necessarily a conscious decision, but rather the issues raised were of importance to many Islanders.
“I said to our caucus every day that I felt it was a very responsible-type session, the questions that were coming forward, while they were critical of government, I thought that they were going to lead to a better province.”
The Opposition Tories had fewer members this session, after losing Hal Perry to the Liberals and kicking former party leader Olive Crane out of caucus.
But Myers said he felt they remained pointed with their questions and were able to effectively get their issues across.
“Everybody came with a plan on how they were going to handle their portfolios… I think they did a really good job of doing that and taking government to task for some of their shortcomings.”
After her first session as an Independent MLA, Crane said she felt she did reasonably well. She didn’t have much airtime in the house, but tabled over 100 written questions.
“These questions primarily focused on issues that impact Islanders’ everyday lives,” Crane said.
The fall session lasted less than a month and saw a total of the 26 pieces of legislation passed.