Sunday, July 08, 2007

Pat Binns of PEI - Atlantic Premier (fmr) Profiles

I wrote profiles of the four Atlantic Premiers for publication for the May issue of Atlantic Business Magazine (ABM). One has already left office (Pat Binns of Prince Edward Island) but the other three are still in power: Rodney MacDonald of Nova Scotia, Shawn Graham of New Brunswick and of course Danny Williams of Newfoundland and Labrador.

A companion piece to these profiles is an overview of all four Atlantic premiers previously published in ABM and posted here.

For the sake of completeness, I include my last profile of former premier Pat Binns of Prince Edward Island.

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Pat Binns is a rarity in Canadian politics – transplanted from one province, he became premier of another.

Born Saskatchewan in 1948, he first came to Prince Edward Island in 1972 to work with its Rural Development Council. First elected in 1978, Binn has been successful in both provincial and federal politics, serving first as MLA in PEI and then a stint in Ottawa as a Parliamentary Secretary in the Mulroney government. After a federal electoral defeat in 1988, Binns spent the next eight years focused on building a successful bean farming business.

Since his return to provincial politics in 1996, his homespun, approachable style has won him large majorities as premier of this clannish agrarian province. Binns clearly believes the old adage that all politics is local. He calls PEI politicians “approachable, accessible and down to earth” and says that “being on a first name basis with the people we serve… leads to greater accountability” – not to mention a great deal of constituency work.

The people of Prince Edward Island love him, and he loves them. He calls Islanders the province’s biggest asset, whose community spirit and dedication to keeping their home a clean, safe place to live creates a positive environment for social and economic success.

That may be why he is so concerned about healthcare. Binns says escalating costs and a limited provincial budget makes it difficult to deliver on the kind of healthcare Islanders deserve, let alone other social spending priorities. But he’s rising to the challenge by leveraging the “Islander asset”, promoting healthy living initiatives and community collaboration – the kind of things that come naturally in this tiny province.

Like the other Atlantic premiers, Binns sees east coast opportunity in western Canada’s booming economy: he is working on ways to keep young people on the Island, providing goods and services for export to Alberta. He is also keen to foster an open trade environment and access the larger US and European markets, since “One potato farm could supply all of our consumers.”

He says he is intrigued by the Atlantica concept, but like his counterparts, is not in favour of political union. Regional cooperation on trade promotion is a priority, as is health and wellness.

Binns regularly participates in the Council of the Federation and the Council of Atlantic Premiers, but acknowledges that their hectic schedules limit informal communications – it’s hard, he says, to just pick up the phone and chat. Binns’ preferred political approach is cooperative, since (as he says) it tends to work – although his hoped for “better deal on equalization” remains elusive on the federal scene.

On the issue of the political moment, electoral reform, Pat Binns has taken a characteristically practical approach: in a 2005 plebiscite, he asked Islanders what they wanted. When they answered that they were satisfied with the current system, that satisfied him.

Such straightforwardness is the quintessential Binns. And when you ask straightforward questions, you tend to get straightforward answers. Perhaps that’s why he says that his biggest surprise as premier has been “that there were not more surprises.” But he did find out that “Premiers are just people like everyone else, with a little more responsibility for government.”

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