Smoother sail­ing ahead?

Sink­ing ship’s cap­tain didn’t panic – po­lit­i­cal lead­ers shouldn’t, ei­ther

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OPINION -

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

Char­lot­te­town.

Wayne Young

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