Monday was a good night for Premier Dennis King as his candidate Natalie Jameson cruised to an easy victory in the deferred District 9 by-election.
With the victory the Tories lay claim to a coveted seat in Charlottetown, something that was dramatically missing after the April 23 election, and inch to within one seat of a majority government.
Tories clearly had enthusiasm on their side. There is little good news for the Greens after a disappointing second place finish, in a race that was theirs to lose. Liberals can take some solace they were competitive and not crushed.
The deferred vote was made necessary after the tragic death of Green candidate Josh Underhay and his son prior to the provincial election.
Monday’s vote will have little direct impact on the operation of government, unless the premier moves to immediately elevate Jameson to cabinet, which will come with a substantial cost for Island taxpayers.
The victory will embolden Tories who crept into power on the promise of civility and bold leadership, but delivered friendly blandness during the first ever minority session of the PEI legislature.
Tories, with the help of Greens and Liberals, offered a refreshing level of collegiality rarely seen in recent years. A new policy giving opposition parties a majority on standing committees should end years of stifling partisanship by both Tory and Liberal governments and is to be commended as a significant move forward.
But beyond tone there is precious little the King government can point to as being a Tory initiative. Despite a leadership campaign and provincial election, Tory promises were swept to the background. Government’s budget is a Liberal document that PCs did not push to alter in any significant way. It made for easy pickings for Third Party Liberals who daily quizzed government on broken or deferred promises.
In fact, the defining policy of the spring session is the private members bill, championed by Green MLA Lynne Lund, to increase PEI’s carbon reduction target from 1.2 megatonnes to 1.4 megatonnes by 2030.
If anything, the bill puts the chasm within the Tory party on full display. Four members voted for it, six against. It is a reality of the conservative brand in Canada. There is a progressive wing, as exemplified by Premier King, and there is right wing/Trumpian faction led by Doug Ford and Jason Kenny.
It is not an easy political egg to balance.
During the session both the government and official opposition struggled at times with their new reality. Greens were accused of being too academic, an apt description, and not focussed enough on issues impacting ordinary Islanders, which may have played a role in District 9.
There was no shining star in the Tory cabinet. Steven Myers was perhaps the most capable and we may be seeing the beginning of a change to his image as the legislature’s most outrageous performer. For a rookie, Dennis King looked like a question period veteran.
But others did not fair as well. Brad Trivers, who carries an immense workload, too often parroted whatever rhetoric department officials handed him. He backtracked on his stated non-support for the carbon bill.
Agriculture Minister Bloyce Thompson has yet to look comfortable in the house, an undoubtably difficult transition from milking cows to answering questions in the legislature. He got caught regurgitating inane talking points when he suggested an Irving company is not in contravention of the Lands Protection Act (his department didn’t do the necessary homework to determine one way or another).
Tories have long criticized corporations using loopholes to get around the 3,000 acre corporate and 1,000 acre individual ownership limits. Dennis King campaigned on a promise to enforce both the letter and spirit of the Lands Protection ACT.
Bloyce Thompson threw that promise in the manure bin. He needs to do better.
Health Minister James Aylward promised five new psychiatrists in the aftermath of revelations that 1,000 Islanders referred to a psychiatrist have not seen one. The Department of Health has no idea if other professional interventions were found.
It was a predictable political response. The current allotment of 15 psychiatrists is down to 11 because of professional leaves. What has the health bureaucracy done to minimize the crisis and why isn’t the minister holding the bureaucracy and our province’s recruitment and retention efforts accountable? If we can’t fill existing holes, adding new positions will not help.
Dennis King has every reason to feel great satisfaction. But the celebration will not last. The issues are very real and Islanders are still waiting to see how the King government will tackle them.
Paul MacNeill is Publisher of Island Press Limited. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org