There were no fireworks, no great exchange on issues impacting our Island community, but the PC Party’s first leadership debate shows there is interest in the five candidates and perhaps more importantly, that the party, which has staggered from one leadership crisis to another, is potentially on the road to presentability.
The issues ‘debated’ – it was really an exercise in lob-ball questions with no opportunity for candidates to interact and challenge – did not stray from the predictable of health care, internet, rural, land ownership and amalgamation.
There were specific points of interest: Sarah Stewart-Clark suggested water leases, controlled on PEI by the federal government, must be considered in the same breath as land ownership, a novel but important idea considering the consolidation that has occurred in the aquaculture industry. Dennis King championed the notion that to be considered a viable electoral alternative the party must embrace real change. Allan Dale took a ‘just watch me’ approach to promises of how he’d deal with many issues. Shawn Driscoll attempted to carve a niche as the true fiscal conservative and Kevin Arsenault is betting the farm on public anger over e-gaming and the Provincial Nominee Program.
As their first collective introduction to party faithful, the five candidates did a good job presenting themselves to the roughly 200 primarily greying adults at Kaylee Hall in Pooles Corner. It is likely the three debates planned will not sway many, although they could impact a second ballot if the contest gets that far. Leadership races are about selling memberships and on that front King appears to have a comfortable lead with the support of the Tory backroom and considerable buy in from his hometown of Georgetown.
As a test run, debates afford all the opportunity to get comfortable in a pressure setting requiring clear, concise, sellable and substantive answers. Talking points are one thing. Putting meat on the bones of key issues is another. That’s what was lacking.
All promise to deal with chronic issues of rural health care, but none offer anything more than platitudes and no candidate challenged the centralized, urban focus of Health PEI recruitment as a key contributor to the issue.
All promise to prioritize high speed internet but none offer specifics (other than blissfully ignoring regional procurement agreements) on how to deliver it, let alone focus PEI on the next ramp of expansion, delivery of 5G to all areas of the Island. None mentioned the potential electoral soft spot that Islanders pay 15 per cent above the national average for monthly phone, internet and cable, which puts business at a competitive disadvantage and stretches the already lowest wages in the country even thinner.
On the divisive issue of amalgamation all parrot the party line of misinformation and fear that caused such needless strife during the Three Rivers process.
Willfully ignoring the hard reality of a dramatically aging population, process, financial standing and aging infrastructure in rural communities only make it more difficult to solve real problems.
The word ‘demographics’ was not uttered. This means no candidate is truly prepared to deal with issues like labour shortages, the provision of health care and education, upgrading infrastructure such as water and sewer, economic development and attracting and retaining new residents.
To be seen as an alternative the party must actually offer more than lip-service. While much of the event focussed on rural issues, the reality is only one of three debates will be held in a rural location. The party thinks it’s perfectly OK to force rural Islanders to drive to Charlottetown or Summerside or a single location east of the capital. Sure the race is being run on a tight timeline, but there is ample time to hold real debates in West Prince, central PEI and eastern Kings. Why don’t these residents matter?
Once again the party brass is dictating, wrongly, a path that minimizes perceived risk while making all candidates appear weaker.
Last week’s debate was optically a success, which is no small victory. The five performed well given the constraints of the format. Substantively – and this is what Islanders will judge the party and new leader on – it was lacking.
After 10 years in political purgatory it’s time the Tories recognize they do not have a divine right to govern. Style can get you in the door, substance and vision can win votes.
Only time will tell if last week was a baby step in that direction or a repeat of past failures.
Paul MacNeill is Publisher of Island Press Limited. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org