I don’t know if the occasion calls for get-well flowers or a “here’s to a happy retirement” card, but there’s definitely something off with P.E.I.’s finance minister.
I used to think there were several truths universal to journalism. One was that politicians never turn down the chance to talk about their projects. Another was that nobody turns down the cover. This was journo life as I knew it, until Wes Sheridan came along and shattered my world.
During the research for this issue’s special report on P.E.I., I couldn’t help but notice that their government website dedicates a fair bit of space to their three-year balanced budget plan. Indeed, “living within our means” is one of the government’s five main objectives, according to last November’s throne speech.
That type of long-term fiscal planning is incredibly rare in a system with fouryear election cycles. Generally speaking, governments undertake drastic cost-cutting in year one (blaming the “other guys” for doing a bad job), achieve some measure of equilibrium in year two, introduce investment initiatives in year three and celebrate their successes (i.e. spend, spend, spend) just in time for re-election. A government with the fortitude to stick to a three-year austerity plan that wouldn’t wrap up until next election? I was impressed.
My mind was made up: not only would P.E.I.’s novel approach to public sector budgeting anchor our special report, but I was going to put the Minister of Finance, Energy and Municipal Affairs, the Honourable Wes Sheridan, on the cover. I assigned the story to one of our top contributors, lined up a photographer, drafted my cover lines—we were ahead of the game. Or so I thought.
When I approached Sheridan’s communications office to schedule the photo shoot, I foolishly didn’t think it was a question of if, but when. But around the same time that I was emailing them about schedules, they were responding to contributing editor Alec Bruce’s interview request with a 107-word emailed statement. Photo shoot? No thank you.
The response was so unprecedented that I seriously wondered if the man had a terminal illness.
Turns out, the finance minister was curiously MIA only on budget issues. As I found out in a follow-up email with his media contact, Brad Chatfield, if we “would like to speak with the minister on the additional stories you mentioned that were in the works regarding P.E.I., such as wind energy, we can arrange that. As for the balanced budget issue, the statement that I sent … covers our position.”
I was convinced there was some sort of miscommunication. Perhaps this Chatfield fellow was a newbie? Maybe he was so new to the job that he was unsure how to prep the minister for a detailed budget interview?
I reached out again, this time to the premier’s office. Would the premier be available? Or the minister? Was the original timeline too tight? Would an extension help? I noted that we were proceeding with or without their cooperation. Did they really want us to give more ink to their critics than them? I pointed out the negativity of their brief statement: “There are times when unforeseen events make it challenging to achieve balanced budgets, such as a decline in overall economic activity that leads to a change in government revenues or expenses. This change can cause an unplanned deficit.” Was this really going to be their final word on the subject? And if that was the case, just how bad are things on the Island? Is P.E.I. on the verge of bankruptcy?
Though we were again initially rebuffed, the minister did ultimately take part in a telephone interview (albeit unscheduled and of approximately 15 minutes duration). The message from that conversation, corroborated by positive ratings from Moody’s Investor Services, is that P.E.I.’s main money man appears to be as fiscally responsible as we initially observed. Still, his response to our repeated requests makes it seem like he has something to hide.
With his November budget update due roughly the same time as this magazine hits the street, Minister Sheridan is about to be pressed for full, unavoidable, public accountability. Let’s hope his current camera shyness isn’t an ominous portent.