Regardless of outcome, the deferred District 9 election will not dramatically change PEI’s political reality. At least not overnight. We will wake up and the province will still be governed by the PC minority government. But whichever party is victorious July 15 will receive an important boost going forward - a boost Tories, Greens and Liberals could all use.
This should be the Greens election to lose. The deferred election was made necessary when Green candidate Josh Underhay and his young son died in a canoeing accident days before the April 23 vote.
It is difficult to criticize a party for decisions made during such a trying time. But the party fumbled the nomination process as it worked to find an acceptable standard bearer who also displays the unquantifiable spirit of Underhay, a dynamic and youthful teacher, musician and leader.
The candidate vetting process winnowed the field from five to two permitted to seek the Green nomination. One of those had run in another district April 23. Elections PEI ruled her ineligible in District 9.
So what should have been a contested and competitive race, turned into a coronation. The fumble led party leader Peter Bevan-Baker to apologize to party members upset with the nomination process.
John Andrew has enjoyed a long career as a medical physicist and community environmental volunteer. He is a strong candidate. His challenge is to convince voters that he is the natural heir to Underhay’s political legacy.
When all ballots were counted election night, the PCs formed government without benefit of winning a single seat in either Charlottetown or Summerside, a first in Island history. District 9 offers them the opportunity to change that and with it inch to within one seat of a majority government.
Perhaps the strongest case for a minority government has come from Premier Dennis King who says it has afforded him the freedom to move in directions not normally expected of new governments.
There is little doubt that if the PCs were to ever get to 14, its manner of governing would change. Pressure would come from the backroom and party loyalists to pursue pet projects. The agenda would likely become less consultative.
Is this a concern for voters in District 9? Maybe for some.
Another concern is the perception the Tories are still not seen as a female friendly party. Of its 12 MLAs, only one is a woman. The perception is built on its rocky years in opposition and the premier’s ugly tweets prior to his entering politics. King has done an admirable job changing the dial. But for some voters, his tweets locked in a lasting first impression.
Sarah Stewart-Clark, who ran for the party leadership, was the District 9 candidate. She stepped aside citing family reasons. There is no reason to question this justification. But it’s also true the party establishment made little secret of its frustration with Stewart-Clark as a candidate and nudged her into making a decision.
Natalie Jameson, a political neophyte, now carries the PC banner. She is a strong candidate able to relate to many of the issues impacting young Island families. If there is a vote of confidence in the King government she will benefit.
The candidate with the deepest roots in District 9 is Liberal Karen Lavers. Her working career was spent with the City of Charlottetown. She has lived and volunteered in the district for decades. The Liberal brand is still strong in Charlottetown - or it was prior to April 23. Now Lavers is asking voters to elect a member of a third party. It’s not impossible, it happened in the District 11 by-election that brought Hannah Bell to the provincial legislature.
Many times in Island history, political parties have argued it is important to have a member on the side of government. It’s a not so subtle argument in favour of patronage. In this by-election the argument holds no water. Whoever is elected will enjoy a level of influence rarely seen in the provincial legislature. It doesn’t matter whether you are in government, opposition or the third party. The great thing about a minority is government must consider the views of all members, regardless of party.
Because everything for both government and opposition is an exercise in counting to 14.
Paul MacNeill is Publisher of Island Press Limited. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org