They literally packed the hall to the rafters. An estimated 4,500 members of the Prince Edward Island Liberal Party jammed the bleachers of the University of Prince Edward Island Field House in Charlottetown, spilling over into hastily erected tents on the campus—some lifetime members, some with the ink still damp on their party cards. In Canada’s tiniest province, politics is a universal passion. From a provincial population on a par with the town of St. Catharine’s, Ont.—about 130,000 people—the Oct. 5 Liberal leadership convention drew a crowd that rivalled some national party gatherings. It was, say most observers, the best-attended political event in the province’s history. And after a decade in power, the Liberals know a gift when they see one. On Oct. 21, fresh from his convention win, Premier Keith Milligan called a general election for Nov. 18—hoping to surf the crest of convention publicity and turn a recent spate of good economic tidings into victory at the polls.
If they swing it, the Liberals will have scored one of the swifter political reversals in the province’s recent memory. Last spring, then-Premier Catherine Callbeck had been priming the pump for an early election in June. Liberal candidates for most of the province’s ridings had been chosen. Policy papers had been drafted, signs printed, postholes dug. Then, two linked events scuttled months of backroom planning. First came accusations that Liberal nomination meetings had been skewed by pressure from the premier’s office to handpick candidates. Second, a public opinion poll by an independent Halifax-based firm put the rival Progressive Conservatives, under their newly chosen leader Pat Binns, ahead of the Liberals for the first time in years. With Liberal party workers blaming the nominations issue for the party’s dive, Callbeck pulled the plug on an early election—and resigned in August.
In the leadership race that followed, most pundits initially underestimated Milligan’s chances. But thanks to a tight, disciplined campaign organization, Milligan’s supporters overwhelmed those of front-runner Wayne Cheverie, the finance minister, on convention day. Now, the former fur farmer from the tiny hamlet of Tyne Valley—a 16-year veteran of provincial politics—is leading his Liberal forces in an attempt to win a fourth consecutive majority mandate for his party.
But the Island’s opposition parties smell blood. Thanks to a Charter of Rights challenge from a Charlottetown voter, the provincial electoral map was recently re-drafted to reduce the legislature’s seat count from 32 to 27, eliminating a series of severely underpopulated rural ridings and giving more weight in the legislature to populous suburban districts. With old voting patterns shattered, the Tories and New Democrats may have their best chance in years to challenge the Liberals. But they face major hurdles—not the least of which is the Liberals’ enduring popularity. In the 1993 provincial election, then-provincial Tory Leader Pat Mella—the first woman ever to lead the party—was the only non-Liberal to win a seat. And apart from the polling downturn this past spring—which was reversed within weeks of Callbeck’s resignation announcement—the Liberals have generally enjoyed a comfortable lead over their rivals for the past decade.
At the same time, no single issue has emerged as a focus of discontent with the gaveraing party. Quite the reverse: the Liberals appear happy to run on their record—and promises of more of the same. On the economic front, they have benefited from the $200million Northumberland Strait fixed-link project—recently christened Confederation Bridge—which has almost single-handedly fuelled a boom in the province’s economy. In addition, the Liberals have negotiated a handful of economic development projects—such as a telemarketing centre for Charlottetown—that they claim will provide a base for future economic development.
That has left the Liberals’ main challengers, the Tories, with little room to manoeuvre. (The provincial NDP, now led by rural physician Herb Dickieson, has never held a seat in the province.) To date, the Tories have focused less on specific policy initiatives and more on what many see as the Liberals’ biggest weakness: the character issue. In particular, the Tories have targeted the government’s controversial 1994 rollback of public sector wages and the internecine squabbling over the Liberal riding nominations. And they are playing to a lingering sense among many Islanders that the Liberals have become too aristocratic and have ruled too long.
According to some political observers, that fatigue factor may play a role in the upcoming election. “Given a credible alternative, 10 or 12 years is usually enough time for people to want to give someone else a crack at running things,” notes University of Prince Edward Island political scientist John Crossley. “My gut instinct is that the Tories are more credible than they were in the last two elections. At the very least, I don’t think we’re going to see another Liberal landslide.” In Island politics, familiarity may not breed contempt—but opportunity.
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