There is a fine line between bold and bull in a china shop leadership. Steven Myers didn’t just cross that line last week, he straight-arm tackled his own government with an announcement the Department of Transportation, Infrastructure and Energy will create a registry for students whose health was potentially compromised by construction of the renovated Three Oakes High School in Summerside.
In the process Myers has made Premier Dennis King look weak, left tire tracks on the back of Education Minister Brad Trivers who he publicly bulldozed, and reminded Islanders of the petulant member of the opposition rather than the man who has become a strong performer for the new government.
During the TOSH renovation air quality did not always meet recommended guidelines. On one day asbestos levels, a known carcinogen, spiked. Parents have long complained that their children were put at unnecessary risk, although PEI’s Chief Public Health Officer reviewed the data and concluded students were not exposed to significant health risk.
In June Health Minister James Aylward announced creation of a registry to track potentially related health issues if they materialize.
Thursday the opposition quizzed Myers and Trivers over the registry, with Myers taking the opportunity to pat himself on the back: “There was an accelerated construction. It was acknowledged, the fact that something did happen there. As I mentioned, I was the one that uncovered it.”
Myers believed education was creating the registry. Outside the legislature Trivers backtracked. He said the needed information already exists within government as the Public Schools Branch collects enrolment data, Health PEI tracks health issues and if something is found in the future the Chief Public Health Officer can investigate.
This is clearly not what Aylward promised, and Trivers looked less than comfortable in explaining it away. But as a process of government, what Trivers proposed is a plausible path forward.
Friday morning Myers stood in the legislature and proclaimed his department will create a registry based upon the suspect jurisdictional logic that his department controlled the renovation.
Wrong. The transportation minister does not have the right to jump over the Ministers of Health and Education while squeezing the premier into an uncomfortable corner just to deliver what he perceives to be a priority.
If the government believes an independent registry is needed then it should have been Trivers, Aylward or the premier to clarify government’s position.
The Department of Transportation, Infrastructure and Energy has zero oversight of students while in school, let alone their health. It is none of the department’s business, regardless of what issues the minister championed in opposition. It is a plan that sets a dangerous precedent for the transfer of personal information between government departments.
Premier King has carefully cultivated a persona of a government that is inclusive, respectful and collaborative. With a single action, Myers blew a hole in the image of a cohesive team. The optics are terrible and at least partially undo the admirable job he has done resetting public perceptions. Taking one step forward and two steps back is unfortunate because the minister is charged with pushing potentially transformative files, such as following the model of the Danish island of Samos toward energy self-sufficiency, forward.
It will require deft political skill to win the support of fellow cabinet ministers, opposition MLAs, bureaucracy, private sector and ordinary Islanders. In short, it will require a lot of political capital, some of which Myers unnecessarily burned last week. To succeed on big issues, the minister must err on the side of thoughtful, rather than reactionary, decision making.
Steven Myers can be a prominent leader in the King government. But he must recognize that while political free styling may have worked in opposition, in government it only raises questions about the ability of the Tories to govern effectively.
Paul MacNeill is Publisher of Island Press Limited. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org