P.E.I. cabinet shuffle raises issues on timing, rationale

Published on January 8, 2016

Doug Currie is sworn in as Education minister after a cabinet shuffle that saw Hal Perry resign from the post. 

©Guardian photo

Why now? That question has sent the Opposition, media, pundits and many Islanders scurrying for answers in the wake of Premier Wade MacLauchlan’s hurried and surprise cabinet shuffle Thursday.

The premier’s rationale — that it’s early in the calendar year and this is an ideal time to make changes — doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. It seemed like a rushed and sudden decision.

This cabinet was sworn in just over seven months ago following the May 4 provincial election. It’s too soon for such a major shuffle when a common rule of thumb suggests that it takes a cabinet minister six months to get a handle on the department, understand how things operate and begin to develop coherent policy.

Hal Perry barely got that minimum window of opportunity before being dumped. Other factors must be in play. Mr. Perry had a large and cumbersome department and he struggled early. That was to be expected. He was criticized for under-performing and the premier obviously had concerns.

It was Premier MacLauchlan who took the lead role in a news conference last fall announcing a major restructuring of the department. The changes were made to address a series of serious concerns such as poor student test scores, labour unrest, declining enrolments, rezoning and possible additional school closures.

Cabinet heavyweight Doug Currie — who has bounced between the mega-portfolios of health and education for more than eight years — is back to sort out the confusion in education. He performed exceptionally well in health since 2011 and the former educator now faces major challenges in his old portfolio.

The premier might be applauded for recognizing that a problem existed and then taking quick action to make changes. But this series of multiple changes have kept the province in a state of disarray.

Depending on who is counting, Mr. MacLauchlan has kept his cabinet in a volatile state since he was sworn on as Liberal leader and premier 10 months ago. The Opposition suggests it’s the fourth shuffle since he was sworn in as leader but resignations, conventions, retirements and an election necessitated most of them.

The semi-constant state of flux isn’t the healthiest situation for the province. The premier did hint in year-end interviews that more changes might be coming but few thought it would involve major cabinet moves.

There are always winners and losers in any cabinet shuffle. A big winner is Prince County which now has three cabinet ministers — two of them strongly connected to West Prince in Robbie Henderson and Paula Biggar. Summerside finally has its cabinet minister — an omission the city had rightfully taken serious issue with since last May.

Tina Mundy, the rookie MLA for Summerside-St. Eleanors, who was named to cabinet for all of one day last May, is back as minister of Family and Human Services. She boosts the number of women in executive council to two — another problem area addressed by the premier.

There were some surprised looks when Kathleen Casey wasn’t tabbed for cabinet Thursday but Summerside had to be represented around the inner table. The size of cabinet has increased to 10 ministers since Mr. Currie’s former duties were divided — a testament to that minister’s abilities — but it also raises questions about added costs governing the province.

Mr. Henderson, a former minister of tourism under Robert Ghiz, was surprisingly absent when the premier named his cabinet after the election. The popular and competent MLA is back, this time in health, the largest and one of the most senior portfolios.

The top priority for government — after getting education sorted out — is a promised balanced budget this spring. For that to happen, there must be a lot of belt-tightening, cuts and changes in priorities.

Premier MacLauchlan expressed the hope that changes are over for a while and it’s time for the province to get down to business. There is a lot of work to be done. We couldn’t agree more.