Smoother sailing ahead?
Sinking ship’s captain didn’t panic – political leaders shouldn’t, either
As Premier Wade MacLauchlan and his embattled education minister, Hal Perry, learned when they moved to jettison 28 teaching positions, political waters on P.E.I. can get very choppy, very quickly.
They might do well to heed the words of a real-life captain and three crew members who endured a six-hour ordeal last weekend 90 kilometres from their home port of Seacow Pond in western P.E.I.
In an interview a day after all four were plucked off their sinking ship by a search and rescue helicopter crew, the captain said the key to their rescue was that he didn’t panic. “If you’re all panicking you’re not going to go anywhere.”
For the past few weeks, the MacLauchlan government has been foundering as it tries to navigate its way through some turbulent political waters inside and outside the legislature. Clearly, most Islanders were expecting much more progressive changes to the education system than the elimination of 28 teaching positions that came in the first Liberal budget. At one point, the teacher’s federation walked away from the bargaining table and more than 100 people marched on Province House to protest the announced cuts.
But like the ship’s captain who had to make the best of a bad situation, MacLauchlan sized up his options and elected to hit the “reset” rather than the panic button, although some would argue he did panic in the face of fierce opposition. Either way, he moved to review the teaching cuts and listen to stakeholders in a bid to improve the province’s education system. It was a concession that likely prevented a much larger demonstration.
Government is certainly feeling the heat in the legislature these days, where I’d say it’s facing the strongest Opposition in two decades. Before this, the most effective Opposition came in 1996 when 18 PCs, eight Liberals and one Third Party member, NDP leader Herb Dickieson, were elected.
I chastised Tory leaders two weeks ago for “playing games” with what I believed to be senseless filibusters. I stand by that opinion but after taking in a live session last week I have to say I’m impressed – not only with Steven Myers and Colin LaVie but also with other Opposition MLAs and especially with Green party Leader Peter Bevan-Baker.
As in 1996, the presence of a Third Party member has made a good Opposition even better. Their aggressive pursuit of the rookie education minister helped expose weaknesses in the cuts he tried valiantly – although not very effectively – to defend. His main talking points, projected declines in enrolment and favourable student-teacher ratios, became less convincing each time he was grilled.
The MacLauchlan government may just be gaining its sea legs, but it’s clear it should not expect an easy ride or passive acceptance to controversial decisions. Having just handed the Liberals a third term in office, voters’ expectations are high and a fired-up Opposition is ready to make sure their voices are heard in the legislature.
Even though it’s early in the Liberal mandate, their handling of the teacher’s file shows its political compass on the issue was clearly askew. If, after hearing from principals of schools that are losing teachers, the school board recommends the announced cuts be reversed, it will be interesting to see how the MacLauchlan government responds.
That decision will either set the course for smoother sailing, or it will guarantee there will be more turbulent waters ahead.
Wayne Young is an instructor in the journalism program at Holland College in
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