Gilles Arsenault will find himself walking an increasingly fine line.
It can be hard to be the major spokesman for an organization that is mandated to be non-partisan, in Arsenault’s case the P.E.I. Teachers Federation, and be an active player in the political process. Technically, he is not a political player, yet, but he wants to be.
The Abrams Village resident wants to be the Liberal standard-bearer in the federal riding of Egmont. If he were successful, that would pit him against Fisheries and Oceans Minister Gail Shea. In what has to be more than a coincidence, the executive of the federation recently changed its bylaws to allow an executive member to hold office until they are officially nominated.
For Arsenault, that reduces risk of running for office. He doesn’t have to give up his federation paycheque until he is officially nominated. There are rumours the Stephen Harper government plans to head to the polls this fall, but right now the next vote is not slated until the fall of 2015. If he fails to garner the nomination, he just goes back to work the next day.
Arsenault is insisting his impending candidacy has no impact on his ability to do his job. He points out all of his dealings as a union leader have been with the provincial government, and he maintains he has never been scared to speak up on behalf of the membership.
Technically, that is true, but the issue is not quite that simple. Arsenault is now a political partisan. Obviously, he didn’t become a Liberal the day he announced his candidacy. Indeed, the 41-year-old has deep roots in the party and worked on the campaigns of the late Leonce Bernard, when he represented the now defunct district of Third Prince. However, there is a big difference between being a card-carrying member and a candidate.
Every decision he made as federation president should now be looked at through the prism of how it impacted his potential candidacy. While it is hard to know what happened in private discussions between the federation and government, we do know Arsenault said little when the government made changes to teacher’s pension plan.
He was a little more forceful when it came to cutting teacher’s jobs, but keep in mind he did issue an e-mail just days before he announced his entry into the political arena, cautioning teachers against speaking out against the English Language School Board and, by extension, the provincial Liberal government.
He might not like it, or consider it fair comment, but as long as serves both masters, it will continue to be something he should be prepared to live with.
Andy Walker is a P.E.i.-based writer and commentator.