House session provides lots of strong debate
over heard on the island “I couldn’t fix the roof after the storm because of the belief that it was a terrible thing to drive a nail on Good Friday.” From the collection of Island author David Weale.
The spring sitting of the P.E.I. legislature – which turned into an early summer session because of the May 4 election - attracted lots of attention.. A more populous Opposition was much more effective and the government faced intense scrutiny and accountability questions on both the speech from the throne and the budget – especially on the hidden cuts contained within that financial document.
It was a session where MLAs vacated historic Province House and convened in the Coles Building. It was a session where Progressive Conservative Leader Rob Lantz tried his best to contribute despite not winning his seat and being forced to remain outside the rails. It was also a session where the first Green Party MLA in Island history took his seat.
It was a session where MLAs had the rare opportunity to elect the Speaker and a surprisingly intense campaign was carried out by four backbench Liberal MLAs. A second ballot was needed before former fisherman Buck Watts donned the black robes to take possession of the Speaker’s chair.
It was a session where Opposition Leader Stephen Myers became one of the dominant figures on the floor. He started off with his usual effective heckling to get under Liberal skin, and was called to task for ‘verbal bullying.’ Perhaps Mr. Myers didn’t take seriously the calls for more civility inside the rails during the election campaign and made some early session probes to see if it was true. It was.
The premier was affronted, Green Leader Peter Bevan-Baker was appalled and it’s likely that Mr. Lantz urged his house leader to tone down the rhetoric. Mr. Myers launched into a six-hour-plus reply to the speech from the throne – perhaps to make a point that he wasn’t happy with the new rules about heckling. Observers were surprised he didn’t make his filibuster-like stand on the budget rather than on the less controversial fare in the throne speech. The throne speech was relatively short, light on self-congratulatory backslapping and contained some promising and interesting objectives.
Once the session settled down to business, decorum did improve and MLAs are to be commended for their willingness to get to work and largely leave the theatrics to the actors across the square inside Confederation Centre.
The budget contained few surprises and saw more belt tightening as government said Islanders voted to see the province live within its means and balance its finances.
The budget largely found favour because the only tax hikes were on tobacco products and the deficit was cut to roughly $20 million this fiscal year with a surplus projected for 2016. Much of the surplus is based on optimistic increased personal tax revenues.
Without doubt, the reduction of teachers in the classroom was the dominant topic in question period and the new minister was on the defensive for much of it. Hal Perry took a lot of heat and while he looked uncomfortable, he did hang in and survived.
The Opposition can take credit for forcing the government to review plans to reduce 28 teaching positions.
P.E.I. Teachers’ Federation president Gilles Arsenault led his bargaining team away from the table, accusing the province of negotiating in bad faith. Only when government blinked and promised to review the cuts did talks resume and opposition attacks cooled.
And we can’t forget it was also the first sitting for new Premier Wade MacLauchlan. He performed well under pressure and tried his best to conduct politics in a professional manner while reaching out to engage all MLAs.
The government brought in some significant bills and will consult Islanders on critical issues like a new water act and hold a plebiscite on electoral reform. Important legislation to ban flavoured tobacco, tax reduction for low-income Islanders and an animal protection act were passed.
All in all, it was an interesting and productive sitting.