Prince Edward Island has become the first province in Canada to see a Green Party form the official opposition. The Greens, led by Peter Bevan-Baker, won 8 seats on April 23, out of the 26 seats in play. PEI now has more Green MLAs than the rest of Canada’s provinces put together.

The Progressive Conservative Party, led by newcomer Dennis King, won the most seats, with 12; however, this is 2 seats shy of a majority, and so King will lead PEI’s first minority government. Oddly, the PCs received a lower percentage of the popular vote than the party won in 2015, when it managed to take only 8 seats.

The Liberals, who were looking for a fourth consecutive victory, were reduced to just 6 seats. The incumbent premier, Wade MacLauchlan, lost his own seat, as did several cabinet ministers.

The election of a minority PC government with a Green official opposition has generated two competing narratives as to the national significance of the PEI election. The first argues that this election is yet another example of the “blue wave” sweeping Canada, as provinces, one by one, are electing right-of-centre governments. The second is that the Greens’ success bodes very well for aspiring Green candidates across the country, at both the federal and provincial levels. Both narratives have some merit, but the full story is more complicated.

A stable system

PEI has the most stable two-party system in Canada. Before this election, only two parties had ever governed or formed the opposition: the Liberals and the PCs. Other parties have had little to no success in electing MLAs. Until 2015, the rare exceptions were in 1919, when an independent candidate won his seat, and in 1996, when the NDP elected a single MLA.

In 2015, Green Party Leader Peter Bevan-Baker won his seat in the general election, with almost double the votes won by his nearest competitor. Then in 2017, Green candidate Hannah Bell won a by-election in Charlottetown. This gave the Greens two seats, itself unprecedented. But Bell’s victory was part of a steady rise in the Green Party’s visibility and popularity on PEI.

Although 2015 was the first time Bevan-Baker won a seat, it was not his first time running for office. Bevan-Baker ran both provincially and federally in Ontario and in PEI. A dentist by profession, he first captured the attention of Islanders by spearheading a protest against a plan to reroute part of the Trans Canada Highway through one of the last stands of old-growth forest on the Island.

The Greens won just 10 percent of the popular vote in the 2015 election, and polls published in the following year did not give any indication that the party’s fortunes would significantly improve. This changed after the Plebiscite on Democratic Renewal held in late 2016.

MacLauchlan had promised in the 2015 election campaign to strike an all-party legislative committee to make recommendations for electoral reform. The result was a plebiscite using a preferential ballot that asked voters to rank five options. The winning option was mixed member proportional, but the turnout was very low: just 37 percent. The MacLauchlan government decided not to accept the results, arguing the low turnout was insufficient to justify making such a radical change to the electoral system.

When the legislative assembly resumed sitting in November 2016, Bevan-Baker accused the Liberal government of ignoring the clearly expressed will of the people. This message, distilled to claiming that the Liberals didn’t respect democracy, resonated with voters and boosted the Green Party’s popularity. More important, Bevan-Baker’s personal popularity began to rise, and continued to do so over the next two years.

As for the PCs, the party saw one leader after another come and go; in one case, a leader was forced out of office, and then booted from caucus. Counting interim leaders, the PCs have had seven people at the helm since 2011, or almost one per year. But with the election of Dennis King in February 2019, the fortunes of the PCs changed dramatically.

King’s background is somewhat eclectic: he has worked as a journalist, in government communications and as the executive assistant to PC Premier Pat Binns. He also spent time performing with a comedy group known as the Four Tellers, four men whose act consisted of telling amusing stories about growing up and living on PEI. Oddly, this personal history might have worked to King’s advantage, as he came into the 2019 election with low expectations.

The campaign

Rumours of a snap election call began circulating as early as the spring of 2018. But each time it looked as though the Premier was ready to ask for a dissolution, something would happen and he would back off. So when rumours once again circulated that MacLauchlan was planning on going to the polls in March 2019 for an election in April, many didn’t take them seriously. After all, the legislative assembly was in recess. Surely the assembly would first be recalled and a budget presented and debated, all of which would take at least a few weeks into April. So the earliest date for an election would be mid-May. However, MacLauchlan pulled the plug on March 26, before the legislature was recalled. The election date was set for April 23, the day after Easter Monday.

When MacLauchlan announced that the province would be going to the polls, he made a point of criticizing both Peter Bevan-Baker and Dennis King. Bevan-Baker, he said, was offering untested policies and foreign ideas, a not too subtle reminder that Bevan-Baker is not from PEI. King, said MacLauchlan, led a party that sought to divide Islanders; the PCs, he said, were a divisive party, a reminder of the leadership issues that had troubled the PCs. The tone, then, was set for an acrimonious election.

The Green Party’s consistent lead in the polls meant something significant was happening, but pundits who predicted a Green majority were not factoring in PEI’s political culture.

But it did not turn out that way. Indeed, King and Bevan-Baker went out of their way to be conciliatory, collegial and cooperative. At the leaders’ debates and forums, they congratulated each other, as well as the Premier and the NDP Leader, for their dedication and service to the Island. Both promised to keep open minds concerning policies proposed by the other parties. During the debates, King would applaud after his opponents spoke. At one point, after the PC Leader had explained his concerns about soil conservation, Bevan-Baker turned to King and complimented him: “Well said!”

There were very few exceptions to this congeniality. Bevan-Baker sharply criticized the MacLauchlan government for promising to implement a new health plan, asking why it had waited this long to do so. NDP Leader Joe Byrne criticized Bevan-Baker for claiming the free market could be harnessed in the fight against global warming: “It was the free market that got us into this mess in the first place; what makes you think it can get us out of it?” And King attacked Bevan-Baker’s support for a carbon tax. On PEI, he said, working people have to commute by car; there is no other option. So adding more taxes to gasoline will not create disincentives; people will just end up paying more.

What happened?

The Green Party’s consistent lead in the polls meant something significant was happening, but pundits who predicted a Green landslide or even a Green majority were not factoring in the political culture of PEI. If language is the issue that fundamentally defines and divides New Brunswick politics, then rural versus urban is the issue that fundamentally defines and divides PEI. So what this election came down to was urban PEI supporting a softer version of Green politics coupled with fiscal conservatism, while rural PEI supported the PCs, who in turn moved their platform policies quite aggressively to the left. The Greens did make inroads into rural PEI; they finished second in 10 ridings, five of which were in rural PEI. But the party’s gains were not enough to win seats. Interestingly, the PCs finished second in six ridings, five of which were won by Green candidates.

The polls that gave the Greens the lead were unable to show where the Green support was. Of course, the election answered this question. The Greens took three seats in Charlottetown proper, and two in ridings next door to the capital. They also took the two Summerside seats and the neighbouring riding. The PCs won only a single seat in an urban area, and that was in Stratford, a suburb of Charlottetown. The other seats in Charlottetown and Cornwall (another Charlottetown suburb) went Liberal. One of the Liberal wins in Charlottetown was not decided until quite late, and the Liberal candidate there won by just 113 votes. The Liberal candidate in this riding had lost the seat in 2015 by 109 votes; but in that election, he was running for the NDP.

The other polling feature that should be mentioned has to do with momentum. The Greens were indeed consistently ahead of the pack leading up to the election. However, they also showed no sign of movement, and in fact they dropped slightly as the election campaign got under way. In other words, it looks as though their support had peaked before the election was announced and then ebbed somewhat during the campaign. Meanwhile, after several years of rock-bottom polling numbers for the PCs and their troupe of leaders, the fortunes of the PCs improved with the election of their new leader. Immediately after the PCs chose King, their polling numbers jumped. The PCs, then, had the momentum coming into the campaign.

Upshot for federal politics

Is the PC win in PEI evidence of a blue wave? The platform of the PEI PCs, as well as the personality of the PC leader, suggests not. Among other socially progressive policies, the PC platform called for increased spending on health and social services, increasing funding for the arts and education, and commitment to diversity and inclusion. The party also presented a comprehensive environmentalist program, one that drew praise from the Green Party leader. Although King has said he does not support the carbon tax, he has also said that he would not join other Conservative premiers in their challenge to the Trudeau government’s carbon pricing policy.

Of course, election platforms are often more honoured in the breach than in the observance, but the fact that the PCs thought their moderate approach was a winning formula indicates that this party sees itself differently than its counterparts.

Is the success of the Green Party evidence that the Greens are now national players? Also probably not. A poll published halfway into the campaign indicated that only 9 percent of Islanders thought governments should consider environment and climate change a priority. Land protection ranked even lower: 4 percent. Health care, on the other hand, ranked first, at 38 percent. The appeal of Bevan-Baker and the Greens, then, was more about the party’s broadened platform, foregrounding the party’s pledge to be socially progressive but sound fiscal managers who listen.

Bevan-Baker’s personality also played an extremely important role. If the predictable knock against the long-serving Liberals was that the government no longer was listening and had lost touch with the people, Bevan-Baker convinced the public — or at least his voters — that he was different. Of course, we will now see whether either of these leaders can deliver.

Close but…

The election included a referendum on electoral reform — a follow-up on the 2016 plebiscite. Voters were asked specifically whether PEI should adopt a mixed member proportional system. The vote was close but the proposal was rejected.

Despite the significant and widespread support for reform, the result was a disappointment to those who hoped that PEI would lead the way in being the first province in Canada to adopt a proportional representation electoral system. All leaders pledged to respect the vote, regardless of the outcome. But given that both King and Bevan-Baker supported electoral reform, we have likely not heard the last of it. Perhaps a different model will be proposed.

Photo: Progressive Conservative Leader Dennis King, with his wife Jana Hemphill, left, arrives in Charlottetown to greet supporters after winning the Prince Edward Island provincial election on April 23, 2019. The Progressive Conservatives will form a minority government with the Green Party as the opposition. The Canadian Press, by Andrew Vaughan.

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Don Desserud is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.

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