P.E.I.'s Minister of Rural and Regional Development Pat Murphy says his department will "focus on connecting communities and businesses together, and promoting rural Prince Edward Island to show that it is a great place to raise a family."
That focus will be at the root of a new rural development and population strategy.
Murphy was named into the new portfolio during a cabinet shuffle by Premier Wade MacLauchlan back in February. At the time, Murphy said he needed more time to become familiar with what his ministerial duties would entail, and what resources he would have at his disposal.
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Murphy said in the three months since the new post was created his department has opened a new office in Summerside to complement government's existing network of rural action centres across the province. And he said an announcement will be made shortly on new economic development councils to be created for four regions of the province.
Heading into the close of the spring sitting of the P.E.I. Legislature, Murphy said his main priorities for the summer would be to oversee development of the rural population strategy and continue meeting with community leaders across the province.
"We're losing a lot of our young people to the oil patch out West. That's a big part of this mandate, is the retention and repatriation of our young people," Murphy said.
"I think if we were able to provide some opportunity, that a lot of these young people that are leaving to go out west would rather stay in their own communities and live and prosper in rural P.E.I."
Government announced the development of a long-term repatriation strategy in both the 2015 and 2016 throne speeches, but so far no strategy has been put forward.
No new resources
According to the budget passed by government this spring, Murphy will pursue his mandate with little more in terms of financial resources than were assigned to rural economic development in last year's budget – even though the department didn't exist at the time.
'This doesn't seem like a strong commitment to rural and regional development to me.' - Green Party Leader Peter Bevan-Baker
In government's 2016-2017 budget, $1.8 million was assigned to rural economic development through the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries. That budget line has now become $1.9 million under Murphy's new ministry.
Murphy's budget also includes $5.2 million for the Employment Development Agency, the same amount provided to the agency last year when it was part of the Department of Workforce and Advance Learning.
When the new department was announced, the premier said it would be supported with the establishment of a new secretariat, although there's no mention of that in the new budget. A government spokesperson said more details would be made public shortly.
'Not a high priority,' says Green leader
Green Party Leader Peter Bevan-Baker wants to know why, three months after the new department was announced, its minister still doesn't have a mandate letter from the premier.
"This new department does not have the same stature as other departments, and that it is not a high priority," Bevan-Baker said to Premier Wade MacLauchlan.
"In summary, so far I see a tiny, under-resourced department without a definitive mandate or any significant authority. This doesn't seem like a strong commitment to rural and regional development to me, but I hope to be surprised."
Voice at the cabinet table
Murphy said one of the most important parts of his mandate is to ensure rural concerns are heard around the cabinet table and in Treasury Board discussions. He said one of his first duties when he was appointed was to meet with communities members fighting to keep their schools open.
Even though the Public Schools Branch voted to close three Island schools in April, cabinet overrode that decision, with the premier saying it was not the time to close schools.
Murphy said ensuring the future sustainability of rural schools will be an effort involving communities, and a collaboration between his department and other government departments.
"We have to make the effort to connect those departments and make sure we're all working together for the benefit of rural Prince Edward Island," he said.
While his new department might not have much in the way of additional funding, it does entitle Murphy to the same perks as other members of cabinet, including a government vehicle and a salary top-up worth $49,962 per year.
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