While there were stumbles from the Official Opposition during the 28 day ‘emergency’ sitting of the provincial legislature, it did succeed in its core responsibility of holding government accountable, particularly when focussed on education, health care and protection of democratic principles.
MLAs Karla Bernard, in Education, and Trish Altass, Health, effectively challenged Tory ministers. Leader Peter Bevan-Baker was instrumental in forcing government to walk back an unprecedented end run attempt around the Legislative Assembly for future states of emergency.
The Official Opposition got better as the session wore on. Bevan-Baker got under the skin of Premier Dennis King. Or at least it appeared. King may have been leaning on his storytelling days by creating dramatic moments to strike at the opposition.
Islanders are generally pleased with government’s COVID leadership and are not holding logistical bumps along the way against the King administration. Five months after the virus arrived on PEI, the premier’s standing is elevated. Ordinary Islanders will tell you his leadership is perceived as strong; his ‘nice’ factor in tact. The minority government is working.
All of which makes Bevan-Baker’s assertion of supposed growing anger toward Tories, for not delivering on election promises of change, slightly off-key. There is no evidence, empirical or anecdotal, to support the contention.
For long-term success, Greens need to look beyond the party bubble. The last election was about change. It was a vote against both the Liberals and Tories, made possible by Bevan-Baker’s reputation as a Green not seen as extreme in his views. Anger, and the leader’s coattails, is what elected eight Green MLAs, not Green ideology.
There are many Green ideas easy to support on paper: Guaranteed annual income, sure. Elimination of reliance on fossil fuels, OK. Independent officers for one priority or another, perhaps. Reduction in what’s seen as corporate agriculture’s control over Island land, let’s talk.
The challenge for the Official Opposition is growing the brand when the premier and leader of the opposition share many political perspectives. Dennis King is a far more difficult political target than Wade MacLauchlan. Too often it appears the opposition is throwing ideas at a wall, hoping something sticks, or appeasing the priorities of its MLAs.
It’s great to dream and imagine how our society can grow, but an emergency sitting during a global pandemic calls for pragmatism, not playing to the party base. Take the party’s enthusiasm for a guaranteed annual income. It is a worthy idea, but to suggest, as Altass did in her capacity as chairperson of an all-party committee on poverty, that it can become reality unfairly raises expectations.
COVID has shown the ability of government to deliver timely support through programs such as Canadian Emergency Relief Benefit. But without a willing federal partner the best PEI can hope for is tinkering with provincially controlled social programs, which is just tinkering, not a solution. How can we as a province convince the Trudeau government to change its mind? Given the sea of red ink all levels of government face, this will not be easy. Greens are silent on the elephant in the room.
The formula that saw Bevan-Baker’s party jump from two to eight seats could work again. The fondness with which Islanders currently hold government will disappear when budgets tighten. It’s why we are unlikely to feel the full depth of fiscal restraint until after the next provincial election. The King government may take its first tentative steps toward balancing the books next year, although that is dependent on COVID’s trajectory. There is little chance the premier will seek re-election based on a cut and slash budget.
We know a fiscal day of reckoning is coming. We know we can’t afford to do it all, so let’s determine our provincial priorities and develop implementation plans.
The Opposition can position itself as an alternative when the knives of restraint are brandished. But it will require a clear focus on what programs and initiatives they want to pursue. Pragmatic prioritization, with attention to detail like partners and cost, will win more converts than throwing ideas at a wall.
Paul MacNeill is Publisher of Island Press Limited. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org