Response to the Speech from the Throne

Peter Bevan-Baker's response to the Throne Speech is copied from the official Hansard transcript of his speech in the Legislature on June 18, 2019.

It is indeed a great pleasure to rise this afternoon and respond to the Speech From the Throne. I’d like to start out by thanking the Premier. Thank you, firstly, for including many of the opposition’s priorities in the throne speech, and I suspect that the level of cooperation and the level of consultation that happened in the production of this throne speech has never before happened on this Island. I think I could say that with great confidence.

 

The reason – well, there are many reasons behind that – but I think I want to specifically point out and commend the House leaders from all three parties, the member from Morell-Donagh, thank you very much for your remarks, but also for your hard work in the production of the throne speech and like you said at the end of your remarks, I hope that this is a sign of things to come. From our own party, the Member from Charlottetown-Belvedere, who I know has put in hours and hours and hours of work with the other House leaders, and for that I’m deeply indebted and very grateful – and of course the House Leader, from the third party, the Member from EvangelineMiscouche, thank you for your work on this as well. I know they’ve worked tirelessly over the past few weeks, and I think the fruits of their labour are very evident in the throne speech that was delivered here on Friday afternoon. Personally, I can’t imagine three people from this House better tasked with carrying out this hard job; intelligent, honest, great temperament, able to achieve compromise and greater collaboration. Thank you to all three of you.

I have to say, I didn’t actually believe that we could achieve that sort of collaboration and consultation without a formal agreement, a confidence and supply agreement, because those types of agreements have worked really well in other jurisdictions where we have had minority situations. They have allowed minority governments to enjoy stability and productive terms in office. A couple of weeks ago of course, I presented such an agreement to the Premier and to the leader of the third party so that we could agree on some basic ground rules of what collaboration might look like and what the parameters and the expectations of the various parties in this House were – and I will continue to be open to further discussions on that.

But, no matter how impressed we are by the work of the House leaders, we’re still very much in the early days of this government and I firmly believe and I still believe that a CASA, a Confidence and Supply Agreement, would provide for this whole House, all sides of this house, greater predictability, greater stability and an ability for us to do good work, regardless of how well things have gone to date. With or without a CASA, my caucus and I will vigorously pursue our constitutional duty, which of course, is to hold government to account.

The Speech From the Throne is often an inspirational document, and this was no different in that tradition. The Premier laid out his vision. Indeed, a quick word search through the throne speech reveals that the word ‘vision’ appears 20 times in the speech – and four times in the margins. I find that especially noteworthy because vision did not appear once, not even once, in the PCs election platform. So suddenly we have a vision, and I’m very grateful for that. I’m not belittling that; I’m just saying that’s interesting. It’s clear that this new government is trying to provide an inspirational document that will unify, not only the three parties in this House, but all Islanders in a vision of working together to make the lives of all Islanders better. The speech states, and I quote: the vision I will outline today is ambitious. It draws on the priorities that have been shared by all parties of this Assembly and in the first six months my new government will put in place the building blocks that will create a solid foundation to achieve the goals to make this vision a reality – thinking back to the questions I asked this afternoon in the House, I made specific reference to the fact that if we have a bold vision and we want to achieve that, if it’s ambitious, we have to first lay the groundwork. We have to lay that foundation on which we build that vision.

I think we can take from this that the Premier does, indeed, have a vision. I think that’s very clear, and for the most part it’s one that I can support and I share. But once we get past the articulation of that vision, there’s actually very little substance in this throne speech. We do not learn what these building blocks are. We do not know how this foundation is going to be built and it’s implied that something truly transformational is going to happen within the first six months of the Premier’s administration, but yet, here we are over two months in, and really nothing in this speech to indicate that they actually have a plan to make this vision a reality.

Now you know what, I’m fully aware of what a fine and accomplished storyteller our Premier is, and I’ve listened with great admiration – both from the audience and on stage – but it’s time for our Premier I think, to put aside the role of storyteller and to start putting actions behind his words and actually have a real plan here, and how this vision, very attractive and lovely vision, again, which I can get behind and which I largely support, but we need a plan.

I think the Speaker once said in this House we need a plan. I seem to remember you saying that perhaps once or twice, Mr. Speaker. I think back to the previous Premier’s first throne speech, and that contained many specific commitments to ensure that the new government’s vision could indeed be realized. These weren’t little incremental changes. These were big things. They were large and they were truly ambitious – and I’m fraught with controversy, by the way. Not to mention, I’m thinking of things like the new Water Act, a huge piece of work which the hon. member, now Leader of the Third Party played a huge role in producing. I’m thinking about the Municipal Government Act, again, a hugely contentious but very important piece of legislation for the well-being of this province – contentious indeed – and bits of work that were there to lay the groundwork for the previous Premier’s vision of what this Island could look like. I see no such bold and ambitious pieces of legislation yet from this administration in order to support the vision. In the previous administration, aggressive plans to increase population were there – and exports, as well as a range of very specific commitments, very specific commitments to improve government accountability.

Now, the current Speech From the Throne is largely absent from that sort of detail and that sort of concrete commitment. It’s very heavy on rhetoric, but very short on detail. One of the reasons I find that so surprising, and I have to be frank, disappointing, is that the PC election platform actually contained 150 distinct promises and one of my hon. members earlier today referenced that. Yet very few of those promises are actually reflected in the throne speech and the ones that have been included, are really no more sustainably developed then they were when they were written in the platform document.

For example, and the hon. member who preceded me talked a little bit about this. The PC platform promised to, and again, I quote: “…bring together Internet providers large and small, to design and implement a made in P.E.I. plan to deliver high speed access to all communities across the Island, adhering to CRTC service adjective of 50 Mbps download and 10 Mbps upload for fixed broadband services by 2021...” Now as a rural MLA, I can tell you, and even in my second term as the representative for District 17 New Haven-Rocky Point, I can tell you there’s no more, there is no issue that I hear more about than the deficiencies in rural Internet. I’ve already had contact from a number of constituents in District 17, we know that this is a huge problem the previous administration tried several times to fix this and it was this sort of tease that it’s just around the corner, just give us a little more time, next time we’re going to get it right and they never did.

My fear is that this administration, in inheriting an agreement penned by the previous administration, may fall into the same trap and we’ve already heard some pretty strong commitments from the other side of this House, that this time we’re going to get it right and we’re going to include the local ISP’s. We’re going to make sure that the funding that is available to the big players and gives them an enormous leg up an advantage on the local ISP’s, who are perfectly capable of providing excellent service, competition in the marketplace and good service for Islanders. I will hold my fire on that, but I’m extremely concerned that we’re going to fall into the same pattern that we’re going to fix this any day now and then 10 years after the original Bell agreement; we’re still no further along.

So the particular promise of providing good service to all Islander’s from tip to tip is one, of course, that I fully support. And considering the urgency of this issue, I had hoped that after almost two months in government, that the Premier would provide again, some more details in his plan but, actually the throne speech provides less detail than were in the platform. The Throne Speech says this: “…The recently announced Internet solution for P.E.I. is being reviewed and a made in P.E.I. plan to further enhance Internet availability involving all industry stake holders, including local ISP’s is being undertaken. Priority is being given to establishing high speed service across Prince Edward Island…” Well you know what, that’s an incredibly vague statement. Such vagueness makes me worried, it makes me fear that I will spend yet another provincial election night – and by the way I spent the first part at least of election night in the place where my wife and I live, it used to be the renovated church – where the Internet was just so poor, we could not even watch it on the television, we had to turn on the radio and get the results that way. So the problem here, is widespread, it’s acute and its affecting people’s lives. So I don’t want to spend another election night in my home, unable to see the results of the election, just because our Internet is really so inadequate.

Mr. Speaker, earlier I commended this government for including priorities from the opposition parties in the throne speech and again I want to thank them for that unprecedented level of collaboration. But for the official opposition, our priorities were climate change, housing, poverty elimination and good governance. Those were the four things that we talked about during the campaign, those were the four things that were front and centre in our platform and they will be the four priorities that we continue to carry into this legislative session. Government states this: “…A long term vision for P.E.I. to achieve a carbon neutral society.” That’s what it says in the throne speech but it doesn’t provide a timeline at all for that vision. So is it 10 years, is it 20 years, is it 30 years, is it 50 years, is it when half of the Island is underwater. Like what are we talking about there? And the lack of urgency really troubles me, since especially later in the speech, the government compares more immediate pressures such as housing, or long term realities such as climate change.

Now, I don’t know about that side of the House, but I can tell you climate change absolutely falls into the category of an urgent issue. The member who preceded me, from Morell-Donagh talked about more aggressive targets, reducing our greenhouse gas emissions to 1.2 megatons by 2030. That’s not an aggressive target, that’s the only target that will allow us to meet the IPCC goals of being carbon neutral by 2050. That’s not an aggressive target; that is the only moral option we have. So please don’t talk about this being a long term or a non-urgent issue. This is the most urgent issue facing humanity; we are an Island province that is most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, we need to do our bit, we need to be world leaders. 

Throughout the speech some commitments are so vague that they become essentially meaningless. For example, I dearly hope that somebody on the government side can explain to me what was meant by the phrase, and I quote: “…My government will take an active interest in developing cultural and historical interests of our youth…” I don’t know what that means.

Or by this statement in responding to the housing crisis: “My governments long term vision is one where Islander’s can afford home ownership and access programs and supports that make this a reality…” That sounds fine, I’m cool with that, I’m on board with that. But that immediately is followed by this. “…It includes allowing home owners to protect and enhance their investment in their home communities…” Now I don’t know what that means, I honestly have no idea what that could mean. The quote goes on, “…It extends equally to affordable housing options for renters and prospective home owners that are plentiful and lead to our overall housing vacancy rate being healthier…” Now I cannot see how having plentiful renters and prospective home owners will lead to the housing vacancy rate being any healthier. We’re already in an absolute crisis situation here, we’re at 0.3% in the last report. Things from what I hear on the streets are no better. This is an absolute crisis in this province and we need to deal with it now.

I have difficulty also understanding this intentional vagueness, since there were so many promises in the PC election platform that I would have expected to see in the throne speech. For example, I have a special interest in the area of good governance, it’s something that I have been hammering on with the previous administration for the four years that I’ve been in this House and I hope to see more PC commitments in the throne speech than were there. In the platform, Islander’s were promised this, and the PC platform, Islander’s were promised this should a new PC government form. Firstly, embrace true open government, yahoo. Secondly, increase the resources available to the auditor general and the information and privacy commissioner. Again, something on this side of the House that we’ve been asking for, for years, didn’t see that in the throne speech. Third thing, introduce or support legislation to ban partisan government advertisement. That’s something that this, the opposition is bringing forward and actually tonight we will table the Government Advertising Standards Act for first reading, very similar to the act that was tabled in the last sitting by the Member from Morrell-Donagh. So I’m hoping, given that it was a commitment in your platform, although we didn’t hear about it in the throne speech, that you will be supporting the opposition piece of legislation that will be coming forward tonight.

Another thing, establish an independent provincial ombudsperson. Of course, I asked the Premier about this in Question Period this afternoon. I didn’t get a clear timeline on that, but I got a reiteration of this governments commitment that that is something important that they’re going to do. So I’m cool with that, we will wait and see but I really hope that, that commitment again that was in the platform, but not in the throne speech, actually becomes a reality.

Finally to separate the roles of the attorney general and the minister of justice, I know there was a series of questions to the attorney general and the minister of justice this afternoon and again, there’s a lot of work to be done there, to improve legal services here on Prince Edward Island, provision of legal services and also the separation of the roles of attorney general and the minister of justice, something that we saw in the platform but we did not see in the throne speech. None of those appear; instead the Premier’s section on good governance, actually in my opinion, tries to inappropriately influence the independent functions of this Legislature. In the speech, government sets out its plan for the realignment of legislative committees. Something I absolutely support and again, something that myself and the Member from Charlottetown-Belvedere have brought up numerous times when we were in the third party sitting in this House.

Under the heading Strengthening Trust and Integrity in our Political System, the Premier describes how he wants legislative committees to be formed, while at the same time he says: It’s not the intention of my government to interfere with the establishment or operation of committees of the Legislature. Well, I have to ask the Premier if it is not his intention to interfere, why does he devote an entire page of the throne speech – again, the throne speech which was devoid of all of those actions that I described earlier in producing good government – why does he devote an entire page of the speech to encouraging, suggesting, recommending, offering suggestions and asking the independent committees to take direction from the Premier’s Office? From my perspective that is, in fact, interfering. First, I want to express my agreement, absolutely, with the intent and the goals behind the Premier’s comments. Yes, one of the core functions of the Legislature, and the committees it establishes, is to hold government accountable to the people of Prince Edward Island. In order for us to do this important work, for the legislative branch of government to do this important work, we need a Legislature and committees that can work independent of government, and are free to scrutinize the decisions and the policies of government.

Far too often in the past – and I know my friends on the other side of the House will agree with me because they sat in committees and suffered in the same way that I did – far too often in the past we have seen governments interfere with the work of the Legislature and with its committees, and I know that many of the members and this new government and I will be very keen to avoid the abuses of the past. For those reasons, we in the official opposition are also keen to see the changes in the committee structure that the Premier describes. I think it’s a great idea. I think it’s long-overdue. However, it is essential that no matter how much we agree on the desired outcome, we must also continue to respect democratic norms. The Westminster system, on which this House is built, is built on a strict division of powers amongst the three branches of government: the judicial, the legislative and the executive. Each of these branches must function independently. That’s not just a democratic norm or a nicety, but that is the founding principle of everything that we do in this House.

Committees of the Legislature are creatures of the Legislature. They are not children of government. They take their direction from this Legislative Assembly – from the Legislature, not from Executive Council. Therefore, when the Premier, as the head of government and the executive branch, tries to inappropriately influence the function of independent legislative committees by encouraging them to act in a particular manner I must gently remind him that such infringements are improper, even if they seem minor. We are in a new and exciting time, with the first minority government in this Island’s memory. It is easy to understand that in his enthusiasm to implement meaningful change – again, something I fully support − the newly-elected Premier has perhaps accidentally overstepped. In my role as Leader of the Opposition, I will continue to speak out to protect the independence of the legislative branch against any and all attempts from the Premier’s Office to usurp our powers.

As much as I have spoken today about what the Speech From the Throne is missing, I will be supporting its passage. These are early days in the new government, and I hope that I speak for all members of this Legislature when I say I truly hope that the Premier will succeed in his desire to lead a government that I quote: puts people at the heart of our decisions, and that he will be able to bring a new collaborative tone to the Legislature with the help and the support of all sides of this House. For those of us on the opposition benches one of the best ways that we can support this government is by holding it to account. That does not mean opposing policy for the sake of being oppositional, but it does mean taking government at its word and holding the executive branch to the highest standards, to the standards that they set out for themselves in the election campaign.

It also means that we must speak up when we believe particular policies may not be in the best interest of Islanders. For example, I have grave concerns about the plan to establish a universal, half-day, community-based pre-kindergarten for all Island four year-olds. I have grave concerns about that. My concerns are twofold. Firstly, I believe that our early childhood education system is already struggling, and it’s struggling because of the former government’s refusal to ensure that our ECE teachers get a livable wage. We currently have more pre-school spaces than we have teachers, and not because of a lack of trained educators. Those people are there, but because we simply don’t value them enough to pay them an appropriate wage and it’s shameful. When trained teachers, who are entrusted with the well-being and the education of our children must leave their profession because they simply cannot afford to live on the wages they are being offered, can we honestly claim as a society that we then put the needs of our children first? I don’t think so. Until we are able to pay our early childhood educators a wage that better reflects the educational requirements and the profoundly important work that they do, it strikes me as simply foolish to try and expand on those programs.

My second concern is that I am not yet convinced that universal kindergarten is actually in the best interests of four-year olds. I believe the education critic, the hon. Member from Charlottetown-Victoria Park, will have much more to say on this when she presents her response to the throne speech, but I personally want to see evidence that beginning the formal education process at the age of four will actually benefit our children. I haven’t seen that yet.

Although I will support the passage of the throne speech, I do so with some reservations. I agree whole-heartedly with the government’s vision. I remain skeptical that there is a realistic plan to achieve this vision. In the coming weeks we will learn more about this government’s true intentions when it brings forward its first budget. That’s when the rubber will really hit the road. The budget will be a much greater test of the confidence of this Legislature as it will provide clear evidence of government’s priorities, far clearer than we saw in the throne speech. The speech is just words – very beautiful words, pretty words, persuasive words – but only words. The budget is action. That’s where it happens: the expenditure of public funds. We on the opposition benches will be looking closely to make sure that the actions live up to those lovely words in the throne speech.

Before I close, I want to take the opportunity to thank the citizens of District 17 New Haven-Rocky Point, for once again entrusting me in being their representative in this House. It’s an absolute honour and I’m terribly humbled to be here again for another term in office. I’m truly looking forward to, what I think, will be an historic session of this Legislature. I want to thank all of my colleagues on this side of the House. Again, I want to come full circle and thank the Premier and the House leaders for the manner in which we have arrived at this point, with a throne speech that reflects a collaborative, consultative process involving all parties in this House – and that’s why, Mr. Speaker, I shall be standing to support this throne speech. Thank you.