Stephen Harper and Robert Ghiz
For the most part, Prime Minister Stephen Harper stayed on message and on script during a visit Thursday to Charlottetown.
It was a textbook trip for Mr. Harper. There was almost no official advance warning so “protest” groups had no time to organize or demonstrate.
There was time, of course, to invite scores of Conservative party faithful to a “public” event in Memorial Hall at Confederation Centre for comments on the 150th anniversary of the Charlottetown Conference — the official reason for the trip.
And the PM also had time to set up a private meeting with Conservative party insiders while in Charlottetown to prepare them for next year’s federal election.
In spite of all the behind-the-scenes groundwork and preparations for Thursday’s visit, someone forgot to let Premier Robert Ghiz know the Prime Minister of Canada was coming to the province.
Premier Ghiz heard some rumours, checked with local media to confirm the PM’s visit, and then decided to make contact with organizers.
The best he could get was something like: “If you want to come, you’re welcome.”
Poor manners are unbecoming for the PM. After all, the visit was largely non-partisan and both federal and provincial governments had chipped in with money for the 150th celebrations.
The PM made special mention of the millions earmarked for Province House repairs once this year’s anniversary events conclude. The province had pushed for the cash and was grateful for the federal financial support.
In addition, Mr. Ghiz and federal Fisheries Minister Gail Shea have always appeared to be on cordial terms as the premier has no wish to cross swords with our federal cabinet minister.
It seemed both sides were on the same song sheet on the sesquicentennial party and Province House. At first blush, it seemed hard to explain the snub handed Premier Ghiz.
Mr. Harper would always be the star of the show so there was no chance of him being upstaged. There had to be another reason for trying to keep the premier out of sight, or at least off the stage and away from podiums.
And that reason was quick to come to the forefront as soon as the first legitimate media question was asked — on reforms to the Employment Insurance program. The two men differ widely on the issue.
Premier Ghiz has been a longtime vocal critic of the changes, especially because of the inordinate numbers of Islanders involved in the important seasonal industries of tourism, fisheries and agriculture. If Islanders in seasonal jobs were forced to leave for work because their EI eligibility was changed, it is bound to negatively impact this province. The four Atlantic premiers all felt the same way and commissioned a report to analyze the impact of those EI changes.
P.E.I. Innovation Minister Allen Roach has blamed record out-migration numbers in 2013 squarely on the EI changes. When asked about those numbers, Mr. Harper made some surprising comments.
He rejected any suggestion the two were connected.
Out-migration ... “has nothing to do with the employment insurance system,” said Mr. Harper, nor the hundreds of Islanders living in, or commuting to, Fort McMurray for oil patch work. He said Islanders are moving because there are more economic opportunities in other areas of the country.
The PM offered broad, sweeping comments yet produced not a shard of data or statistics to back them up, nor produced any testimonials from Islanders who moved away, to support his claims.
Premier Ghiz was close by to offer a convincing differing viewpoint on the PM’s comments, something which Mr. Harper obviously hoped might be avoided.
It was the only hiccup Thursday from mission control.