CANADA

Island election fever

CINDY BARRETT April 7 1986
CANADA

Island election fever

CINDY BARRETT April 7 1986

Island election fever

After Prince Edward Island’s Conservative Premier James Lee announced an April 21 election last week, the opposition Liberals began their campaign in a surprising way: by pulling a potentially powerful punch. Lee appeared to be in political trouble when it was revealed in February that he accepted a free 1984 vacation at a Florida hotel owned by developer Bernard Dale. Dale had received $23.2 million in government funding and loan guarantees to build a controversial Charlottetown convention centre. But Liberal Leader Joseph Ghiz was reluctant to press the issue—Islanders had disapproved when Ghiz earlier questioned Lee’s relationship with Dale.

Lee, 49, issued the election call after presenting a throne speech that contained many appealing programs. Those included a subsidized drug plan for people 65 and over (Prince Edward Island’s population of 126,000 has the highest proportion—12.2 per cent—of senior citizens in Canada) and a development fund to encourage job creation in smaller communities and improve the Island’s 13.7-per-cent unemployment rate. Ghiz claimed that Lee had been unable to prevent Ottawa from imposing recent fare increases in ferry services to the mainland, and he added that traditionally the Conservatives created jobs only in vote-rich Charlottetown.

Another issue that could pose problems for the Tories is the Prince Edward Hotel and Convention Centre

controversy. Seven months after that complex went into receivership in February, 1985, the province took it over, along with $9 million in debts. The government finally sold it to CP Hotels last month under a complicated purchase agreement that the Tories say will enable them to recoup,their losses. But the Liberals insist that the deal has cost the province more than $14 million. The prospect that Litton Industries Ltd. might build a plant on the Island to produce a low-level air defence system is also likely to be a major campaign issue, with peace activists and unemployed Islanders taking opposing sides.

In fact, some observers say that the Liberals have a good chance of forming the next government. In the 1982 election Lee won a comfortable majority, but in three subsequent byelections the Liberals have taken away Tory seats. Current standings in the 32-seat house: Conservatives 18, Liberals, 14. James MacNeil, publisher of two Island weekly newspapers and a close observer of Island politics, estimated that the the Liberals “may have a slight edge” over the Tories. If Ghiz, a 41-year-old lawyer of Lebanese descent, decides that he needs another issue to widen that edge to a winning margin, he might decide that Lee’s Florida vaction stands in need of public debate after all.

CINDY BARRETT

KENNEDY WELLS