TERESA WRIGHT: Hasty cabinet shuffle raises questions


Published on February 15, 2017

Rural and Regional Development Minister Pat Murphy, left, signs the oath of office after his swearing in to cabinet Wednesday at Government House in Charlottetown He signed the papers alongside Lt.-Gov. Frank Lewis, right, as Premier Wade MacLauchlan looked on.

©Ryan Ross/TC Media

It appears the growing chorus of concerns about government ignoring or abandoning rural P.E.I. has not fallen on deaf ears.

Teresa Wright, The Guardian's Chief Politicial Reporter.
TC MEDIA

Wednesday’s mini cabinet shuffle saw the creation of a new cabinet portfolio called – you guessed it – “Rural and Regional Development.”

And it’s no surprise that Liberal backbencher Pat Murphy has found himself leading this new portfolio.

Murphy has been an outspoken advocate against the ongoing school change process, which is proposing the closure of five Island schools, including two in Murphy’s district of Alberton-Roseville.

He has publicly said the closures in his riding would “tear rural P.E.I. apart” and has been leading a charge of West Prince residents opposing all school closures, attending public meetings and posting his candid thoughts on social media.

By promoting him to cabinet, MacLauchlan has effectively silenced Murphy, at least publicly. As a member of cabinet, Murphy will have to toe the government line, something many backbenchers already do but are not required to do. And since cabinet has the final say on any school closures, you won’t hear any cabinet ministers saying a word about schools until after final decisions are made.

But it was clear this was two-part plan on MacLauchlan’s part. Creating a new Rural and Regional Development portfolio is meant to show government cares about rural P.E.I. enough to make it a cabinet priority. It’s not a full government department, but it does comes with a new secretariat with offices in Summerside and Montague and satellite services in Alberton, O’Leary, Wellington, Bedeque, Charlottetown and Souris.

When asked whether the creation of this portfolio is a response to the criticism his government has faced over its handling of rural issues, MacLauchlan, surprisingly, agreed.

“This is a recognition that there is a dialogue or a debate to which we can and should contribute and to which we should be responsive,” he told reporters Wednesday.

Murphy, for his part, has said he will be vocal at the cabinet table when it comes to fighting for the schools in his riding. And this will put him at the table if and when school closures do go to cabinet, so that’s a win for him.

RELATED: Richard Brown out of P.E.I. cabinet; Gallant, Murphy shuffled in

On the other side of the coin we find veteran MLA Richard Brown, who has once again been relegated to the backbench, replaced by longtime Liberal backbencher Sonny Gallant.

The reason why Brown was removed from cabinet remains far from clear.

The only statement he would give me was that he most certainly did not quit. And he definitely wasn’t happy about it.

The event itself was also a hastily organized affair.

Earlier in the morning, Gallant was at a regular meeting of public accounts, but abruptly left halfway through the meeting at about 11 a.m.

An hour later, Brown was among a small group who proudly marched with MacLauchlan down Great George Street in a walk against family violence.

Shortly after this march, at about 1 p.m., Brown was told he was out.

The media was informed at 2 p.m. to be at the lieutenant governor’s residence for an announcement at 3 p.m. Finance minister Allen Roach was in a sweater and Education Minister Doug Currie was out of the province. All the usual pomp and circumstance of swearing-in ceremonies was missing.

Why the rush? And why was the longest-serving MLA now sitting in the P.E.I. legislature shuffled out of cabinet? One thing is certain - Islanders deserve to know.

 

Teresa Wright is The Guardian’s chief political reporter. She can be reached at Teresa.wright@tc.tc or follow her tweets about P.E.I. politics at Twitter.com/GuardianTeresa