Canada

Old-style Politics

Elections in Prince Edward Island are still fought door-to-door

John DeMont April 17 2000
Canada

Old-style Politics

Elections in Prince Edward Island are still fought door-to-door

John DeMont April 17 2000

Old-style Politics

Canada

Elections in Prince Edward Island are still fought door-to-door

John DeMont

There is laid-back—and then there is Pat Binns, the icily calm premier of Prince Edward Island. Last week, midway through the provinces election campaign, Binns’s van was cruising along back roads past reddish Island farmland. His driver, a lobster fisherman from the eastern end of the Island, was lost. They were 90 minutes behind schedule. Every so often, a pothole threatened to realign the front end of the vehicle, which was painted Tory blue and decorated with a white “Lets continue” logo. But the 51-year-old premier— apparently oblivious to the radio blaring in the background and the television with the static-filled screen on his lap— somehow managed to look placid as he simultaneously spoke into his cellphone and tried to pinpoint his next campaign stop on a map. “Looks like we’ll miss supper,” he drawled to an advance man. “Good thing we had a late lunch.”

Politics does not get any more grassroots than in Canadas smallest province, where a margin of 2,108 votes was enough to sweep the Conservatives into power in 1996. Islanders, who traditionally have the highest voter turnout rate in the land for provincial elections (85.4 per cent in 1996), take their politics seriously. Many families still vote along the same party lines as their forebears did; government largesse creates most of the jobs; and a deeply entrenched system of political patronage lives on. “It’s old-style politics here,” says Peter Buker, a political studies professor at Charlottetown’s University of Prince Edward Island. “But this may be the most informed electorate in the country.”

Binns and his Tories, who held 18 of the legislature’s 27 seats when they called the election on March 21, are campaigning for the April 17 vote with a 75-per-cent approval rating in recent polls. The Liberals, who had eight seats, are led by Wayne Carew, an ex-car dealer who lags 30 points behind Binns in personal popularity. Struggling to differentiate themselves from the ruling party the Liberals have vowed to overhaul the early education system—“The Binns government focuses on erecting buildings,” says Carew. “We will give educators the resources to teach.” They also promise to restore the national child benefit; at present, Islanders who receive money under the federal program see their provincial social assistance cheques cut by an equal amount. The New Democrats, with little money and just one seat, depend on campaign stunts to make the television news.

The low-key race suits the Tories, who have the biggest war chest and the most experienced candidates. Basking in the glow of an expanding economy with strong retail and tourism sectors, they want the campaign to be a referendum on their 3 V2 years in power. They even dream of breaking through in the western end of the Island—traditional Liberal territory where they were shut out in 1996.

The Tories, though, are not complacent. Having held just one seat before they trounced the Liberals four years ago, they know how easily a seismic shift can occur. Party strategists also understand one of the guiding principles of Island politics: with 136,500 residents and a close-knit society Prince Edward Island remains one of the few provinces where campaigns are still won on doorsteps and wharfs and in meeting halls, rather than with slick ad campaigns and state-of-the-art polling. “Politics is personal here,” says Binns, who dodged a punch while campaigning door-to-door back in 1978. “It’s a small province and to succeed you have to connect on a face-to-face level.”

The premier’s smiling visage adorns every Tory poster. The Saskatchewanborn bean farmer makes an ideal pitchman for the party’s eclectic platform, with its mix of tax breaks for low-income Islanders, loans to help entrepreneurs and spread jobs across the province, and new spending to hire nurses and RCMP officers. Although he has been party leader for only four years, Binns has been elected to the legislature four times and served as the member of Parliament for Cardigan from 1984 to 1988. He also seems to have the stamina and common touch needed to hustle for votes in every village, hamlet and isolated farm.

Last week, while Macleans accompanied him on a typical campaign day, he went door-to-door with a Tory candidate in the western end of the Island; tabled his party’s health-care plan at the regions biggest hospital; dropped into two machine shops and a pair of general stores; visited a fishermen’s wharf and a senior citizens’ home; and met with a group of nurses. He finished the night with an appearance at a riding social as he headed to his home near Murray River, on the eastern side of the island, where he lives with his wife, Carol, and the last of their four children still at home. “He came to listen—that’s all you can ask of a politician,” said Peter Kean, chief executive of Royal Star Foods Ltd., a fish-processing

company in Tignish, after Binns had spent a half-hour listening to fishermen talk about lobster prices and the need lor funds to spruce up their harbour.

Even among these friendly audiences, the big campaign issues repeatedly surfaced. Nobody came right out and asked for a job—even though patronage is the Island way (during their last term the Tories had to pay $1.6 million to 752 Liberal supporters who claimed they lost government jobs because of their political affiliation). But nurses wanted further assurances the government will shore up a health-care system suffering from cuts in federal transfers. And there was grumbling that the $2.2 million the government has pledged to help the Island’s potato industry—hard hit by virus in recent years-—is not enough. “We’ll look into that,” Binns assured the voters over and over. Then he was on to the next stop, in his own relaxed way running hard towards election day. 113