© Guardian photo by Brian McInnis
Premier Robert Ghiz and James Alyward, Progressive Conservative MLA shakes hands after the Island legislature closed Wednesday afternoon. The loss of teaching positions and the social assistance budget were hot topics.
Session ends with light legislative agenda; stay-the-course budget held few surprises
There were low expectations from the spring sitting of the P.E.I. legislature and a stay-the-course, 23-day session ended Wednesday with few surprises. Government remains in a deficit reduction mode, en route to a planned balanced budget by 2016.
The spring sitting deals more with money matters such as the budget and Auditor General’s report, while the fall sitting is more legislative in content. The $1.6-billion operating budget, which projected a declining deficit of $40 million, was delivered before virtually deserted public galleries, a sure indication little was being promised.
With a bare-bones budget and a light legislative agenda, the Opposition was left to seize on whatever it could.
Legislation on tougher amendments to address repeat drinking drivers was thrown into the debate at almost the last minute, seemingly to make it appear something useful was being accomplished.
The session did have some interesting moments. The Opposition set a tense tone early by bringing up hotel movie expenses and room upgrades, causing embarrassing moments for cabinet ministers George Webster and Valerie Docherty.
The suggestion that government double-dipped on a $25-million HST payment from Ottawa continued to lead the PC order paper for the first week. Opposition Leader Steven Myers rose on a point of privilege to continue his persistent attempts to entrap Finance Minister Wes Sheridan on allegations of misleading the house.
The Opposition did ensnare the government in a major faux pas when it hammered Ms. Docherty for leaving some $2 million on the table from her social assistance budget. Also left unspent were $1.2 million for mental health and addictions services and $4.5 million in rural development funding. Government seemed willing to let critical funding lapse as a way to reduce its deficit.
Fisheries Minister Ron MacKinley preferred to poke fun at the lobster landings of critic Colin LaVie rather than address the issue of low lobster prices and an industry in crisis.
The Opposition was confrontational with a tough line of queries during question period, occasionally going too far to bait and goad cabinet ministers. And often its plan succeeded, getting under the skin of several senior members. It did get quite childish by times.
Independent PC Olive Crane stopped playing politics and confined her limited opportunity to pose questions to policy matters and general social issues. Crane was quite happy with the session, helping to holding government accountable.
Without a seat, NDP Leader Mike Redmond could only criticize though press releases or news conferences. He was quick, relentless and sharp in public comment on many issues.
The legislature could have shone by holding an emergency debate on low lobster prices. Instead, Mr. MacKinley repeated that government couldn’t regulate fish prices; that only the market can. Yet, government has no problem empowering IRAC to regulate prices for gasoline, home heating fuel, rent, waste watch etc., instead of letting the marketplace solely decide.
Maybe it can’t do much but at least the legislature should have indicated it cares about the crucial lobster fishery.
Government toyed with the interesting idea of an Annual Basic Income to address poverty. Then Health Minister Doug Currie made an unusual comment about the need to fast-track solutions for addictions, when his department had stalled on that for almost a year.
In a case of reversing roles, the Opposition was admonished by both the P.E.I. Teachers Federation and liquor store employees to butt out of their business. Deep-water wells, cosmetic pesticides and abortion have dominated public opinion of late but government opted to ignore all three.
With such a lackluster session, did MLAs earn the pay raise they approved just prior to the house opening?