Paul MacNeill

The provincial budget lacked one key ingredient – the vision Islanders expect to see from new Premier Wade MacLauchlan.

During both the Liberal leadership coronation and provincial election the former President of UPEI positioned himself as a man ready to lead a province on the precipice of financial disaster, a reality driven by the fact we spend too much sustaining the public service and too little on ever shrinking frontline services.

Finance Minister Allen Roach called the budget a forward thinking document. It is not. It lacks both vision and courage. A decade ago Tory Premier Pat Binns delivered virtually an identical budget based on optimistic revenue projections and a belief that the burgeoning public service, which accounts for 70 per cent of the $1.6 billion budget, can be reined in through attrition.

It cannot. Pat Binns and Robert Ghiz proved it.

Initially the size of government did shrink. But any gain was short lived and unwieldy. There was no logic to staffing reductions. Under Ghiz staffing returned to not only traditional levels, but swelled to record highs. At the same time taxpayers shell out unprecedented amounts for contract services.

Roach claims he is delivering the budget Islanders demanded. It’s clear the Liberal government was not listening during the provincial election. It’s absolutely true that Islanders expect our government to get its fiscal house in order. But that is not a one-dimensional wish. We want frontline health. We want a world-class education system. We want proactive environmental protection. We want modest and efficient economic development.

Most importantly we want government to put us on the road to long-term sustainability. This can only be achieved by reimaging government and by engaging our fellow Maritime Provinces in substantive sharing of services. It is a subject our elected leaders only tepidly embrace. Health PEI has made great pronouncements about a deal to batch purchase generic drugs, but why not take it a step further and create a single Maritime drug formulary?

We would lead the country.

Three liquor commissions is merely a recipe for patronage, waste and unacceptable financial returns. Why not one?

We would lead the country.

Fifty years ago Alex Campbell called for the Maritime Provinces to adopt a single process for automobile registration and licensing.

It’s time. We would lead the country.

Each of the Maritime Provinces is throwing tens of millions at the sinkhole that is electronic health records. PEI has spent more than $80 million and the budget estimates hide the annual capital costs of maintaining the system. We send at least $4 million annually to the United States corporation that sold naïve bureaucrats and politicians on the necessity of a Cadillac Island specific system. Over and above that we spend $5 million sustaining the system (indicative of a health bureaucracy that is 3.5 times the national average) that nine years on still does not deliver a province wide solution.

Wade MacLauchlan claims to stand for openness and transparency, and to his credit has made some strides to improve basic disclosure. But the provincial Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act is a national joke. We are the only province where the act prohibits release of provincial employees, their salaries and job titles. Appeals routinely sit in the chronically under-funded commissioner’s office for more than four years. This reality will remain. The FOIPP office does not even warrant its own line item in the provincial budget. Yet Communications PEI, the propaganda arm of government, maintains its $4 million budget.

Education Minister Hal Perry claims the department’s top priority is ‘student achievement.’ The minister does not know what he is talking about.

We spend $1.6 million every year on standardized tests - no budget cut here - that do not improve the education of our children. We adopt yet another standardized test, this one mandatory for graduation, that will only force more students out of music and other programs that offer a fully rounded education.

We adopt a ‘Certificate of Achievement’ for students who complete a general program in high school. Many jobs require high school graduation, but these students will not graduate with their Certificate of Achievement. If they don’t graduate we’ve merely succeeded in giving them more reasons to quit. How is giving any student justification for quitting school an achievement?

It is a policy driven by education bureaucrats, many of whom have not seen the inside of a classroom for years, who routinely ignore the advice of frontline teachers and administrators.

The premier talks of the ‘Gift of Jurisdiction’; as a province we can set our own rule book. But this gift will only last as long as PEI is a province. Merely achieving a balanced budget is a political milestone that does nothing to stop our inevitable march toward insolvency. When that happens union with another province will be forced upon us. This is why picking true Island priorities is so vital. What’s the point of shuffling department titles if the guts of government remain unchanged?

And that is the real story of budget 2015. Missed opportunities.

Paul MacNeill is Publisher of Island Press Limited. He can be contacted at paul@peicanada.com

Publisher

Winner of more than 50 regional, national, international awards for commentary and investigative journalism. Founder of The Georgetown Conference on building sustainable rural communities. Featured in A Good Day’s Work. Talking head for CBC Radio and TV.

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