A conversation with the premier

Teresa Wright
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Wade MacLauchlan settles in for a chat with The Guardian in the annual year-end interview.

Premier Wade MacLauchlan sits down with The Guardian’s Teresa Wright, looking back at the year in P.E.I. politics

Premier Wade MacLauchlan says the biggest challenge he believes he will face over the next four years is accomplishing his goals before his time as premier of P.E.I. is up.

During the premier’s yearend interview with The Guardian, MacLauchlan shared details of why he decided to throw his hat in the ring for the job as premier of P.E.I. after former premier Robert Ghiz announced his resignation late last year.

He sought a lot of advice from friends as he contemplated the idea before finally asking himself to do it, as he put it.

“Another of my friends said… 'How would you feel if you decide not to do it and then later are asking yourself if you should have?' So, it was through that kind of thought process that I arrived at the decision to put my hat in the ring.”

After taking the Liberal party through an uncontested leadership convention and on to a spring provincial election, MacLauchlan garnered a majority government with a reduced number of seats.

But he says his party’s 18 of 27 seats is still a “working majority in any parliamentary system” and has forged ahead with implementing big changes to the province in his first months in government.

The education system is undergoing a major overhaul in governance, amalgamation of Island municipalities is being explored, a process is underway to hold a referendum on electoral reform.

In the coming year a new energy strategy and culture strategy will be developed and a new water act will be drafted.

These are just some of the projects MacLauchlan hopes to tackle during this mandate and, he hopes, perhaps another. He revealed he does plan to seek a second term as premier.

“Yes, I intend to run again in 2019. Our government has a robust agenda to work with Islanders on numerous strategic priorities that will help to ensure a sustainable future for our province.”

In the face of all his big plans for Prince Edward Island, the new premier confessed his biggest challenge will be time itself.

“The No. 1 challenge is the passage of time,” MacLauchlan said.

“Here we are in our year-end interview and I’m wearing my tie with the sun and the moon and the stars to remind me that there are cycles and that time passes and, frankly, that continues to be the thing that, I won’t say surprises me, but certainly challenges me.”

Q&A

Taking office

Q: How has your life changed since becoming premier?

A: When I thought about getting into this, I talked to some people who know about being premier and one of them said to me, “There’s nothing in your life that you’ll do that will provide as much soul food as being premier of your province.” In many ways it’s a continuation of things I’ve been doing and frankly, I’m loving it.

Q: Why did you want the job as premier of P.E.I.?

A: I wasn’t really contemplating it until that day, the 13th of November 2014 when former premier Ghiz announced he was stepping down. Then things started to happen very quickly. Another of my friends said, “How would you feel if you decide not to do it and then later are asking yourself if you should have?” So, it was through that kind of thought process that I arrived at the decision to put my hat in the ring.

Q: As the only candidate for Liberal leadership, you became premier by default. Why do you think no one challenged you for the job?

A: This was a unified decision that this was the best way for the party and the province to go and I was gratified of course by that kind of support. To my mind, while I was the only person who was seeking the job, it was a fully engaged process to be with the people, to work with the Liberal party.

Q: After the election in May you were handed a reduced majority. What did those results tell you about the mandate Islanders gave you?

A: We got two-thirds of the seats, which is a working majority in any Parliamentary system, a very strong team to come to power with us and to form a cabinet and a caucus.

Q: What surprised you most when you walked into the office on the fifth floor of the Shaw Building for the first time as premier?

A: There wasn’t anything that was a shock or a complete revelation to me. I think the thing that was on my mind then and has been on my mind at other times in my life and is today that the No. 1 challenge is the passing of time. That continues to be the thing that, I won’t say surprises me, but certainly challenges me.

Q: What criteria do you use in selecting an MLA as a cabinet minister?

A: You’ve got to go with talent and with the fit for the various tasks. Ultimately it’s to get the mix of people who will do the particular jobs and then who will work together as an effective team.

E-gaming

Q: How do you think controversies from the former administration, such as the Provincial Nominee Program and e-gaming, affected the results of the election?

A: From the time we came to government in February we made it clear that we were committed to openness and transparency, and I think that people could see that this was a new way to do business. We extended the conflict of interest provisions to senior officials and advisers. We added a greater element of transparency and accountability to expenses, we appointed an ethics and integrity commissioner. I think the outcome of the election shows people saw this as a new start.

Q: Islanders have many unanswered questions about e-gaming, especially about a $950,00 loan to the Mi’kmaq Confederacy that funded it. Where did this money go and what will happen with this loan?

A: What we’ve said all along is that we are bringing a new way of doing business and Islanders will have the auditor general’s report. We intend to take that to heart and act on it and to square up to any issues that are pointed out by the auditor general.

Q: Will taxpayers be on the hook for the money involved with this loan?

A: Yes, I expect so, but we’ll just have to find out what the outcome is and, in fact, to respond accordingly.

Q: What will you do to assure Islanders they won’t be looking back and facing similar controversies from your administration?

A: I think they have to look at the people they’ve elected, and hold us to account on a day-to-day basis. I think that’s really what Islanders should look for in good government and look for that on a continuing basis.

Freedom of information

Q: Openness and transparency has been a key principle guiding many of your policy decisions, so why will you not bring municipalities or post secondary institutions under freedom of information legislation?

A: I’ve launched a challenge to the municipalities and to the post-secondary institutions to be proactive and adopt their own policies of freedom of information and open data. They have been given a two-year window to show they can do it. And should it be the case that people don’t think that’s enough, the freedom of information and protection of privacy model may have to be pursued.

Potato disinfection

Q: A cut in funding to potato disinfection services was a hot button issue this fall. Why not sit down with the potato board and try to come up with another solution?

A: We’ve been working with the potato board all the way through and in fact they’re quite willing to take the initiative and to pick up the program and to have it done through the industry, which in fact is how it’s done in all of the other provinces.

Finances

Q: You’ve said your government is trying to live within its means. Will we see more cuts as you try to present a balanced budget this spring?

A: In order to live within our means, it’s constantly necessary to be looking at where we can do the same job or even do better with a different allocation of resources. I think that’s the way taxpayers should expect their government to approach the finances.

Q: How do you balance ‘living within your means’ and balancing the budget, with the public backlash often associated with cuts?

A: It’s always the case with resources, that they’re not unlimited and the expectations and the needs that people have, that they would like to see the government address, will always surpass whatever the amount of resources are in even the most positive of times. It’s to see where you can make improvements in people’s lives.

Q: The fall fiscal update showed the province is $13-million over its projected deficit for this year. Are you still confident you can present a balanced budget in the spring?

A: A balanced budget for 2016-17 is still a commitment and we’re still working on all of the elements involved with that. The biggest part of this is to continue doing well with our economy and to see that we’ve got the kind of prosperity that will enable government to serve the needs of the people.

Vision

Q: Living within your means has been a key component of your vision for the province, what would be another important part of your vision for P.E.I.?

A: A very important part is engagement, and we’ve brought forward numerous measures for people to be more involved in government, one of them is the whole Engage P.E.I. process where people can put their names forward to be part of the decision-making process through boards or commissions. Another is electoral reform and the work going on in that area. And of course there’s always the whole aspect of people.

Electoral reform

Q: The special committee on electoral reform delivered its report this fall and it didn’t contain a plebiscite question. Were you surprised?

A: I saw, as their work was ongoing, people were raising question of how much time would be available. I’m also aware that a lot of Islanders are not fully engaged in this whole question right now, so the fact that we’re taking the period from now until the spring sitting of the legislature to do some further public consultation to develop a plebiscite question, I think is entirely positive.

Q: How do you get people engaged in electoral reform?

A: Prince Edward Islanders are interested in politics, they care about how they cast their vote and I think it’s really to make sure the significance of the issues that are being considered are brought home to Prince Edward Islanders so that they will engage and will have a view.

Energy

Q: How could the upcoming new energy strategy for P.E.I. reduce the province’s dependence on fossil fuels?

A: Technological developments will be one of the ones that we’ll need to be fully aware of. We’ll also need to look at the larger context of regional collaboration and energy supply management and sharing. A further piece of this has to be conservation, and I believe that’s going to be a more prominent part of our overall addressing of our energy mix.

Women in cabinet

Q: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made his cabinet gender balanced, famously remarking, “Because it’s 2015.” Your cabinet includes only one woman. Why?

A: When you get through to forming a cabinet you take a look at what the positions are that are available and the kind of team you’re putting together and put together the strongest team with the strongest fit for the positions. As we go forward, I intend to continue taking a look at the mix that we have in our cabinet and we may indeed be looking at making some changes from time to time.

Q: How will you ensure the needs of women and the impacts of policy decisions on women are being adequately considered?

A: There are a many people engaged in the broader process of influencing government. I’ve been very proud of the work Paula Biggar has done in her several roles. Also our caucus as a whole is very attentive to these issues and we have good, full debates and bring all the issues to the table.

Abortion

Q: Another women’s issue did dominate headlines this year – abortion. Where do you stand on a woman’s right to choose?

A: When you asked me the last time I said I didn’t think my personal view was very helpful one way or another in terms of my responsibilities as premier. Q : Don’t you think Islanders deserve to know? A: My role as premier is to do my job and to receive and have input from all sides and I can assure you there are many sides that one hears from on this question and others. In this particular case, it’s Wade MacLauchlan as premier that people look to for leadership and that’s what I’m committed to do and I’m prepared to say that’s what we have done.

Q: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said Liberal party members at the federal level need to vote to defend a woman’s right to choose. Given this is policy from your own party federally, why is P.E.I. the only province in Canada where women don’t have access to abortion services in their province?

A: I wouldn’t say it’s the case women in Prince Edward Island don’t have a right to choose. After the election, we moved within weeks to provide greater access to (off-Island) abortions. It’s my understanding the measures that were put in place have been perceived as a step forward. We’re also following what Prince Edward Islanders feel about this, including that this is a very controversial issue.

Q: It seems the only reason it’s not being offered here is because of politics. Why not just allow it?

A: In the case of government, it’s your job to assess what the view is on things and to choose the timing for steps to be taken and that’s what we’ve done. I think what we’re seeing is this is a step forward and we’re prepared to stand behind that at this stage.

Child advocate call

Q: One of the 15 recommendations from the jury of the inquest into the murdersuicide of Trish Hennessey and four-year-old Nash Campbell called for a child advocate. P.E.I. is the only province in Canada without one. Why have you decided P.E.I. does not need one?

A: What government did, and through a process of some extensive consultation and working together among government departments responsible for social policy, came forward with a three-part response. Our position is that we have responded to the gist of, or the heart of the recommendation that there be a child advocate through the co-operation and the initiative and the expertise of these three initiatives.

Q: With no one central person or body overseeing this work, how will you ensure families in crisis will not fall through the cracks?

A: That’s the purpose of the hub model, is that people will work together and in fact there are ministers and ultimately a premier that’s responsible for the effective functioning of the public service.

Amalgamation

Q: You have said you want to move on recommendations in the Thompson Report, which included reducing the number of P.E.I. municipalities. How will you approach amalgamation when some rural communities are opposed?

A: To me the question isn’t about amalgamation in the first place, it’s about good local government and in fact 70 per cent of the physical area of Prince Edward Island has no local government at all. I think the first step in all of this process is for the community at their level to have an effective conversation about whether they share what I would call a community of interest.

Deep water-wells

Q: Another issue that has elicited a lot of emotion in P.E.I. is deep-water wells. Will you lift the moratorium on deep-water wells?

A: There’s a group currently at work engaged in a very active consultation with the community. There will be a further report from that group which will lead to a draft water act. When we’ve had that full process, including consideration of the best science that’s available, we’ll all be in a better position to answer that question.

Education changes

Q: You’ve announced the English Language School Board will be dissolved and replaced with three new advisory councils. How will this improve student outcomes?

A: I’m looking forward to the year ahead because I think that’s when we’ll really see the merit of the advisory councils and above all the commitment to student learning and to excellence in our education system.

Q: Why are you eliminating the English Language School board when a number of previous reports and commissions recommended against this?

A: What we’re doing here is taking away some of the formal governance and functioning in our entire school system. We’re really going to get into the substance and the merit of the collective commitment to excellence in education.

Q: Do you think you’re doing enough to communicate with Islanders on your changes to the province’s education system?

A: It’s always part of the discourse in politics, the timing of things. But I believe by the time we get to Groundhog Day people will see these new bodies are working effectively, that the transition to a single governance structure is well underway and that the focus will be on the kind of education system that we want.

Q: Another big move in education this year was a plan to cut 28 teaching positions that you later reversed. Are you worried backing down on the teacher cuts will inhibit your ability to make future cuts?

A: I think people appreciate the fact we will listen and respond where concerns are raised.

Student assessment

Q: Education minister Hal Perry has said P.E.I.’s student assessments are under review. Is this a hint they could be eliminated?

A: I think the question of the need for assessments is one that has been in the air for a number of years. As we move forward with the new system of educational governance I think that’s exactly one of the questions that the people who are actively involved in the school system will be well placed to consider.

Looking ahead to 2016

Q : What do you think will be the most important issue that Islanders and your government will be dealing with over the next 12 months?

A: Energy and environment and climate change. There will be continuing issues to be dealt with around the municipalities, we’re going to be dealing with some further issues around culture with a strategy white paper coming forward. I think people will see the Water Act come forward, democratic renewal – I expect we are going to have a very full year of engagement and action and leadership

Organizations: Shaw Building, English Language School Board

Geographic location: Prince Edward Island, Prince Edward Islanders, Canada

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