Climate change, health care and education stood out as the top priorities for Dennis King in his first state of the province speech, surpassing traditional fodder for Progressive Conservatives, such as keeping taxes low and maintaining a balanced budget.
The speech, delivered before a Rotary Club of Charlottetown dinner on Monday night, has been a yearly tradition for P.E.I. premiers, one where the economic priorities often dominate the conversation. At last year’s state of the province speech, then-premier Wade MacLauchlan spoke of the record of his Liberal government on job creation although social spending was also emphasized. A hand-out placed before every dinner guest bore the headline “getting ahead together”.
King’s speech, delivered at much more gentle political moment, where an election seems still a distant possibility, sounded more aspirational than defensive.
“I know it’s important for the premier to stand here – especially here – and say let’s balance budgets and reduce taxes,” King said early in the speech.
“So, I will say it – and we are doing it – and we will talk about that tonight. However, the issues of climate response, truly accessible health care and our children’s future are, I would say, the most important issues of our time in Prince Edward Island.”
King outlined several initiatives undertaken on each of these issues, but allocated the most speaking time to health care.
On climate change, King touted a plan to move P.E.I.’s school buses to full electrification. The claim stood in contrast to plans announced in the most recent capital budget to spend $16.1 million on 30 new gasoline fuel buses and one electric bus. King also suggested electric school buses could be used in areas of P.E.I. that lack public transportation options.
The premier also announced a new $1 million climate challenge fund for “students, experts, communities and business” that address climate change issues.
On health care, King said his government is focused on delivering team-based primary care and improved rural health care. He said “extensive community engagement” on a rural health initiative would begin in March.
King also stressed the importance of improved mental health and addictions services.
“I believe the investments we are making will modernize our mental health and addictions service with a focus of keeping people healthy,” King said.
“People can and do recover, and recovery is a unique and personal process.”
On education, King touted the current plan for universal half-day pre-kindergarten for all four-year olds in the province and plans for a school lunch program. The province has said it will roll out both programs in fall 2020.
King did not mention the planned fall roll-out date for the pre-kindergarten program, but did mention the planned September roll-out for a provincewide school lunch program.
King said these social investments were made possible by the favourable economy in P.E.I.
“A strong economy means government can make the investments needed to address affordable housing, to increase investments to our social programming and to make the investments needed to ensure more and more Islanders are sharing in our strong economy,” he said.
Notably, the cabinet minister mentioned most by name in the speech was Social Development and Housing Minister Ernie Hudson. King said Hudson had worked with the Green Opposition on the December increases to social assistance food and living allowances.
King also said that the collaborative tone in the legislature had ensured debates were “less rancorous”. He also noted the speech he was giving had been completed in a collaborative manner, with input from Green Leader Peter Bevan-Baker and Liberal interim Leader Sonny Gallant.
“It was amazing, but not surprising, that our priorities were quite similar,” King said.
“As it stands today, the new tone of our politics is working for the people of P.E.I.”