CANADA

An Island stunner

JOHN DeMONT August 19 1996
CANADA

An Island stunner

JOHN DeMONT August 19 1996

An Island stunner

CANADA

It comes too late to really matter. But Catherine Callbeck, the spotlight-shy premier of Prince Edward Island, finally knows the secret to winning an audience’s attention: keep ’em guessing. Last May, Callbeck stood before a crowd of expectant Liberal supporters at a local high school. The campaign signs had been printed, the telephones at Liberal headquarters connected—all that remained was for her to confirm that Islanders would go to the polls 27 days later. So jaws dropped when she told the crowd she had decided not to call a provincial election. Last week, the first woman to be elected premier in Canada stunned them again. She had lost the confidence of the public, the 57-year-old Callbeck told a hastily called Charlottetown news conference. “I believe,” she went on, “the responsible choice is to step down, making way for a successor who better reflects the current wishes of the people.” There is no way to separate the two events. Callbeck, as she maintained at the time, may have resisted calling an election in May because of widespread public opposition to a possible campaign held 3V2 years into her government’s five-year mandate. Or it may have been the result of a public opinion poll released the day before the expected election call. The poll showed that 42 per cent of Islanders intended to vote for the Liberals—down 16 percentage points from just three months earlier—compared with

47 per cent for the Conservatives (the Liberals currently hold 31 of the province’s 32 seats, the other belonging to the Tories). Whatever her reasons, Callbeck’s apparent indecisiveness—which one provincial columnist labeled “the biggest dose of cold feet in Island political history”—served as a flash point for growing discontent over her leadership.

Was Callbeck pushed, as everyone from political opponents to women’s groups claimed? “This is the premier’s decision,” party president Brendan Curley maintained last week (Callbeck declined to be interviewed).

But her departure could not have come at a worse time for the Liberals. Callbeck’s successor will now be under intense pressure to call an election before construction of the fixed-link land bridge connecting the Island to New Brunswick is completed some time next year, wiping out hundreds of construction jobs and further dampening the province’s tiny, farm-dependent economy. That will give the new premier little time to turn around the momentum that has been building for the Tories since Patrick Binns, a 47-year-old bean farmer and former provincial cabinet minister, became party leader in May.

And if Callbeck’s successor harbors any dreams of grandeur, he or she will quickly

Premier Catherine Callbeck calls it quits

learn an inescapable fact about governing 132,000 people in Canada’s smallest province. “Unless an Island premier is like Joe Ghiz and can do it by dint of character,” explained Agar Adamson, a political science professor at Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S., “they don’t stand much of a chance of playing a strong role in a national sense.”

Following the flamboyant Ghiz, who was premier from 1986 through 1993, and who is now a Prince Edward Island Supreme Court judge, was Callbeck’s misfortune. Last week’s political obituaries pointed out that she gj presided over an economic recovI ery on the Island, helped turn the I fixed link into reality and made I the requisite tough fiscal moves. § When it came to defending the Is% land’s interests, said Nova Scotia g Premier John Savage, “she never left you in any doubt that Prince Edward Island was an island and that she was in charge of it.”

Style, more than substance, was always her problem. Ghiz, who now suffers from cancer, displayed a quick-witted charm, finesse and eloquence that pushed Prince Edward Island into the spotlight. By comparison, Callbeck, a tall, earnest former MP and provincial cabinet minister who once ran her family’s small chain of retail stores, is a plodder—a wooden public speaker who seemed to disappear from the public eye at home for long periods of time and received nowhere near the attention that strong Atlantic premiers like New Brunswick’s Frank McKenna and Newfoundland’s Clyde Wells have commanded nationally.

Until a few months back, those qualities seemed enough. But since the Tories elected their new leader, signs of panic began to emerge in the Liberal ranks, nowhere more obvious than when several disgruntled Grits who lost riding nominations—including Ghiz’s wife, Rose Ellen—openly accused the premier’s office of rigging the nomination process to run a handpicked slate of candidates.

The scotched election call deepened the party’s disarray. And as the weeks went on, her resolve seemed to stiffen. She promised to weather the criticism and lead her party into the next election. Then came last week’s shocker announcement. In the end, Callbeck broke important ground for women in Canadian politics. Otherwise, she might already be forgotten.

JOHN DeMONT