Premier Dennis King vowed to deliver a new form governance, a promise broken within hours of assuming office through his political appointment of a slew of deputy ministers.
The former Liberal government talked about transparency and accountability. That didn’t stop the Minister of Health from meddling in the legislated authority of Health PEI to select its own CEO. Health PEI’s board quit in protest, creating a void that extends to this day in the independent delivery of health care.
Last spring Green MLA Lynne Lund introduced a private member’s bill committing PEI to lowering greenhouse gas emission targets from 1.4 megatonnes to 1.2 megatonnes by 2030. It’s legislation that has nothing to do with actually lowering emissions, and everything to do with making politicians look good. PEI still doesn’t have a plan to meet the first target, let alone Lund’s more ambitious goal.
Transportation Minister Steven Myers spent an unbudgeted $17.6 million repairing rural roads because they were in “terrible shape” and, according to the minister, were ignored by the previous government for too long. The money either has to come from some other government pot, or add to our provincial debt.
What all have in common is a lack of long-term planning, accountability and transparency hardwired into the structure of the PEI government. While the federal and many provincial governments have worked to enhance their governance model, Maritime provinces, including PEI, stand in the shadows, benefitting from a freewheeling, do what the premier and cabinet want, structure that may win short-term political gain, but hinders the province from identifying and delivering true provincial priorities.
It all goes back to what is called the Westminster system of government, highlighted by an independent, non-partisan, civil service, something that does not exist on Prince Edward Island. The ranks of the civil service are routinely padded with supporters of government; deputy ministers are plucked from the private sector, often thanks to political connections not management skill or expertise.
A needed tension between minister and deputy is lacking, as deputies serve the government that appoints them, not Island taxpayers.
For decades, PEI cabinet ministers have micro-managed files, sticking their nose into program details they have no right under Westminster involving themselves in. The result is the operation of PEI’s government is corrupted by politics.
Some will argue that in a small jurisdiction it is inevitable, and necessary, for cabinet ministers to follow an activist management approach and for politics to seep into how tax dollars are spent. It’s an argument that ignores the most obvious flaw of a system manipulated by politicians of all stripes. Public money is spent lacking needed planning, transparency and accountability.
Basic oversight is inadequate. The Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act is a joke. The office of the Auditor General is chronically underfunded. The Speech from the Throne is a non-binding list of goals and pie in the sky aspirations. The capital budget is a malleable promise of future public expenditures.
Island politicians view robust oversight as a political pitfall, rather than an opportunity to explain how money is spent and why goals are either met or not. While other provinces establish specific goals and report on their progress in a legislated annual report, our province throws information out, without ever following up. Here’s an example of Alberta’s annual report, a level of accountability that simply does not exist on PEI. https://open.alberta.ca/publications/2291-6431
Our system is built on silos, with each department given the same budget as last year, plus or minus a couple of percentage points annually. We never review programs and services to see if they are meeting the needs of Islanders and communication and planning between departments is virtually nonexistent.
This shows up in how programs are rolled out. The Department of Health and Wellness is proposing health care hubs, without dealing with the structural issue of recruitment and retention of health care professionals.
Transportation and housing play a major role in the delivery of mental health care and addiction treatment, but this reality is lost in government planning. As an Island, we are on the frontline of climate change, yet our political leaders have yet to propose a costed, detailed plan to combat its negative impacts.
Our education system ignores the impact its inadequacies has on economic development. Rural communities are at the whim of centralized education, health care, immigration, environment and economic development policy that fail to pull together into a comprehensive plan all components needed to build vibrant communities. The demographic tsunami facing rural PEI is all but ignored, raising serious question about our ability to provide relevant programs and services to rural Islanders. The Department of Tourism is pulling a page from 1995 with wasteful pet projects promoting golf on American television and tournament sponsorship. It will do nothing to grow the game or tourism and ignores the structural issue of the industry failing to deliver the service and value for money promised.
Westminster is not a panacea. But it is a needed starting point if Tory, Green and Liberal MLAs are serious about delivering a better way of life for all Islanders.
Better planning leads to better policy, program development and accountability, which leads to smarter, more efficient, spending of our money and stronger communities.
Without it, we will continue to receive the same political lip service, the same ducking of accountability and the same half-complete planning that has led time and again to failure and waste. Regardless of which party is in office.
Paul MacNeill is Publisher of Island Press Limited. He can be contacted at email@example.com