Premier Wade MacLauchlan offered some surprising answers during his year-end interview with Guardian political reporter Stu Neatby. The interview, carried in Thursday’s editions and broadcast earlier on Eastlink, is an annual feature with the P.E.I. premier and provides an opportunity to look back on major provincial events over the past year.
It was late in the interview when the premier was asked what he thought was the most memorable moment or decision of the government in 2018. The premier, renowned for citing ledgers of positive statistics about job creation, population and exports, instead offered an unexpected response. “I was really proud in mid-June when we turned social assistance on its head. We went from talking about eligibility, and even clawing back money, to talking about people’s abilities and capabilities.”
The premier was making a direct connection low-income Islanders, a topic that he’s been accused of neglecting in the past. A key criticism has been that he’s too concerned with business growth and job creation, and not enough with affordable housing and attacking poverty issues. It was a refreshing observation that he rates social assistance as “a big one” . . . and one that he’s proud of.
The province announced a 10 per cent increase in social assistance rates this fall, part of its poverty reduction strategy. While increases in assistance were welcomed far and wide, the thrust of the strategy was criticized since it accepts poverty as a perpetual reality and because the theme is reduction and not elimination.
Another unexpected answer came with the final question of the interview. Mr. Neatby asked the premier if there was one thing over the past three years that he would change, if he could do it over again. It might seem more in character if Premier MacLauchlan offered up something about the ghosts of thorny issues like the CMT/financial platform boondoggle, the missing $950,000 loan to fund that initiative, PNP or missing government emails – all things inherited from the previous government.
Instead the premier again surprised, seizing on a subject that went directly to a grassroots issue with ordinary Islanders. Cavendish Farms had just announced it was closing a potato packing plant in O’Leary, putting 40 Islanders out of work, about the same time the province was unveiling a repatriation initiative to attract Islanders to return home.
The premier fumbled a question connecting the two issues, pointing out the province’s strong job creation numbers in an effort to downplay the 40 jobs lost in O’Leary. He was accused, and justifiably so, of being tone-deaf to Islanders and their families about to lose a job and income. In the year-ender, the premier acknowledged he bungled that answer. Especially his tone. What he would say, if he had the chance to go back in time, is, “well, we’re really concerned about the people, their livelihoods and their community of West Prince and we’re going to get in there and roll up our sleeves and do something.”
At least he acknowledges the error. If he can help find a business or jobs in the O’Leary area to replace those lost by the plant closure, it would mean a lot more.
Both questions offered the premier a chance to keep the narrative on current good times and avoid the fumbles during the year; or to accept credit for the government being responsible for the Island being ‘on a tear.’ He declined.
Missing this year was the bragging tone of the 2017 year-end interview when he suggested he exceeded his own expectations for progress as premier. It was a more contrite, kinder and gentler premier who presented himself to wrap up 2018.
With a provincial election expected in the spring, it was sound strategy and made solid, political sense to present this other side of the aloof premier who answered questions as he prepared seafood pies for traditional gifts to give out at Christmas. But that’s a story for another day.