Ian Dowbiggin | Sept. 22
Where's the excitement? Where's the pizzaz? As the province heads into the final week of campaigning, you might be forgiven for asking these questions. In fact, the mood of this election campaign is as flat as Ben Mulroney's singing voice.
This was the impression I got after attending the party leaders' debate at the Basilica Recreation Centre on Sept. 18. Sponsored by the P.E.I. Federation of Labor, this meeting promised to be an excellent forum for airing issues that many have said were being ignored during the provincial election. There was every indication that sparks would fly.
But that's not how things turned out. There was precious little electricity to warm the evening. The debate ended up confirming what observers have suspected all along: Islanders just aren't excited about this election.
It's not as if hot-button issues were not raised during Thursday night's debate. They were, including the minimum wage, anti-scab legislation, the Workers' Compensation Board, pay equity and collective bargaining. From time to time tempers became frayed. When Tory Premier Pat Binns defended his government's changes to the Workers' Compensation Board, his comments drew catcalls from the largely blue-collar audience.
Passions also ran high. Kim MacKenzie is one of the five group home workers from Montague who was on strike for more than a year. Her complaints about the absence of anti-scab legislation were heartfelt and moving.
But as the evening wore on it became clear that the debate was
an exercise in futility. There exists an obvious policy gulf separating
the many union activists in the audience and the two political
parties with the best chance of winning power on Sept. 29.
That isn't enough to those who agree with NDP Leader Gary Robichaud that the key is more direct government involvement in the economy. But until the culture of 21st century politics changes radically, Robichaud and the P.E.I. Federation of Labor will be fighting a losing and discouraging battle. The realization that people were talking at cross purposes tended to put a damper on the whole evening.
Perhaps there would have been more liveliness to the Sept. 18 debate if it had been a real debate. But the format of the evening favored statements from the political leaders and questions from the floor. If the party leaders had actually debated among themselves, there would have been a lot more excitement.
But we have to remember that right from the start Islanders were never crazy about this election. Forgotten amid the election coverage to date are the results of a poll commissioned by The Guardian last August. The poll found that well over half of Islanders wanted Binns to postpone an election until next year. Only 26% felt a fall 2003 election was a good idea.
What these numbers say is that Islanders' hearts just aren't in this election. The question is: will the voters punish Binns and the Tories for calling the election in the first place? This factor, more than any other issue so far, may prove to be the most crucial. On Sept. 29 we'll find out for sure.
Ian Dowbiggin is professor of history at the University of Prince Edward Island. Author of four books, including the 1999 Canadian best-seller Suspicious Minds: The Triumph of Paranoia in Everyday Life, he's well-known to Maritime audiences as a controversial radio and television commentator on today's hot-button issues.