Budget Response 2021
Mr. Speaker, we all know that COVID has been the dominating concern facing Islanders, Canadians and the world for the last year.
And I remember the early days of the pandemic: In the midst of public fear and worry, there was also an ember of hope.
In short, many thoughtful people – both here and around the world – were hoping for social changes.
There was a sincere belief that the gaps exposed by the pandemic would result in long-term improvements to the way we respond to the challenges faced by families, individuals and communities.
Mr. Speaker, the members of the Liberal caucus believed in those opportunities.
And over the last year, we have vigorously advocated for a re-assessment in the way we pay essential workers and the supports we provide to Islanders in long-term care and our willingness to truly begin the hard work of addressing the growing mental health crisis our province.
As the long months of the pandemic slowly ticked by, the Liberal caucus began to watch government’s response to the challenges exposed with a deepening sense of dismay.
Instead of profound and meaningful action, we watched a patchwork of announcements and excuses that merely papered over the issues of the day.
Early on, the Premier used the sad old cliché: “Never waste a good crisis.”
Well, to my mind – and in the view of the Liberal caucus, the opportunity for government to truly address some of the obvious economic inequalities and social neglect in our province was abandoned.
Let me illustrate my point:
For months, we have faced different degrees of lockdown and too often, thousands of Islanders were asked to stay at home and limit their activities.
During that time, the government could easily have created the kind of distance learning programs that would have accelerated and enhanced the skills of thousands.
What did we get instead?
Grocery cards and photo-op potato handouts and goodie bag giveaways at the bridge.
Or take a look at our hospitality sector.
We all know the terrible challenges faced by the thousands of entrepreneurs and employees who have built our Island into a world-class destination.
These gains were hard-won and it took many years for us to build a great reputation as a family vacation spot – and a skillful appeal to a wider range of visitors.
But instead of taking the past year to truly refresh and enhance the sector, we have seen mere band aids that did little to stop the bleeding and nothing to prepare us for the true year of recovery in 2022 and beyond.
From another perspective, the pandemic starkly revealed obvious gaps in long-term care.
Mercifully, we were fortunate here but were the lessons from across Canada even heard? Did government even begin the hard work to address the future needs of a growing community of seniors?
Sadly, Mr. Speaker, the answer is a pale and sickly ‘no’.
Mr. Speaker, I was honored to be the Minister of Finance during a period of unparalleled economic growth.
Our record in job creation, advancement of educational opportunities and financial management was arguably the best in our province’s long and distinguished history.
And I am proud to have been part of an administration that introduced full-day kindergarten and the George Coles Bursary and a string of balanced budgets that respected the public investment in our government.
But two years into this government, we have yet to see a vision a plan or an understanding that the challenges we face today will stretch for many years into the future.
And for that reason – after a series of disappointments that included the Speech from the Throne, I gave up most of my optimism around the 2021 operating budget.
Perhaps I am a pessimist, but I reduced my expectations – knowing that government’s track record does not point toward an imaginative, comprehensive and well-considered response to these dark and difficult times.
And it is important we have a debate and in spite of the Premier’s obvious discomfort with criticisms, an open and mature government welcomes debate.
Democracy requires debate.
Debate is often built around the need for legitimate criticism.
Legitimate criticism is not a partisan activity – in fact, it is the bedrock of government accountability.
Having said that, I would like to move toward some specific observations about today’s budget:
First of all, I would like to offer two compliments.
The entire Liberal caucus is pleased to see government finally keep its promise to provide free shingles vaccines to all Islanders over the age of 65.
As the budget speech acknowledges, this was something we have been pushing for two years – and this will be a great relief to many seniors, who often live on a fixed income.
Second, it is good to see some early steps toward safe consumption sites on the Island. Although the announcement in the budget appears overly cautious, it is welcomed news to see some progress made on this increasingly important file.
Having said that, I am perplexed by some spending decisions revealed in this document.
The issue of access to mental health care has become a crisis.
We all know there are problems – and the gaps revealed by the pandemic are obvious.
So, I was expecting to see higher expenditures in areas like acute mental health.
Last year, this House approved spending in acute mental health of more than $22 million.
But Health PEI underspent that budget by nearly three per cent.
Really – were the needs in acute mental health less than expected? Did government believe there was room there to pad the budget?
Or take a look at addiction services: This year, government is expected to spend a little over $14 million on addictions.
This coming year, there is a cut in a year when there is a lavish home gambling scheme being rolled out by this government.
So I am merely left to wonder: Why in goodness name is addiction services not expanding?
On the same matter of unspent dollars, I am surprised by the contingency fund.
According to this budget, the House approved more than $108 million in contingency.
But what was spent? A little over $80 million. Which means this government left nearly $28 million on the table.
So, were all the needs of this province met?
Did government truly serve the people of this province with mental health challenges?
Did government address the individuals and families that are being destroyed by addictions?
Did government prepare a thorough plan to move our hospitality sector through a difficult time?
Mr. Speaker, the answer to those three questions is “no” – and that is a tragedy.
The money was there – approved by this House – to truly ensure that no Islander was left behind. But government’s vision did not include an obvious need to address challenges in the moment – let alone prepare a long-term plan.
And then, Mr. Speaker, on the tax side, this year, the government is expecting to raise an additional $19 million in carbon levies.
Take a look at page 16 – revenues from the carbon levy is going from $16.6 million to more than $35 million.
And where is the plan? Well, buried at the back of the budget speech, we see a few vague references rebates and home efficiency.
Mr. Speaker, this increase to the carbon levy is one of the largest tax increases in Island history – and government’s entire explanation is exactly 84 words.
That, Mr. Speaker, works out to more than $223,000 per word – which, to my mind at least, is an inadequate explanation.
And Mr. Speaker, I can assure you, there will be many questions about the carbon levy in the weeks to come. Islanders will want to know where their money is going.
With all that said, I do want to acknowledge the central role played by the federal government during the pandemic.
Without programs like CERB, the CWS and CERS – well, we would have been in a lot of trouble.
Over the last year, close to a billion dollars was transferred to Islanders – and the provincial government was also a recipient.
According to the budget, an additional $80 million was provided by Ottawa to the government – which certainly allowed for needed investments in mental health, addictions and tourism.
It’s just too bad this government did not follow through on obvious gaps in our program delivery.
And I am doubly disappointed by the apparent lack of vision.
As I said earlier, this was an opportunity to re-invent ourselves.
We could have done it through education, better supports for vulnerable Islanders and a new economic plan for our hospitality sector.
Instead – I am left feeling deflated.
There is little vision – and there appears to be no real roadmap forward.
As I have outlined over the past several weeks, we believe that not enough has been done to offer Islanders the clearest possible direction in terms of: access to health care, education, the economy, and most especially - the opportunity to use this time to our best possible advantage. But – we are sympathetic to government.
In conclusion, Mr. Speaker, I want to recognize all those who have worked so hard – the essential workers, the public servants who put in long hours and every Islander who has followed the rules and worked very hard to protect us all.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker.