race is on
Pat Binns is ready to make history in this election, but two other parties hope they'll be more than just a footnote to it. If Binns can pull it off, he'll be the first modern day Tory premier to win three majority governments on the Island.
"We made commitments to Islanders about building strong communities, about improving health care, about strengthening our education system and about creating employment opportunities. When I look at those four broad areas, I think we've done a lot to improve life on P.E.I.," Binns says.
Liberals and New Democrats have a tough job ahead of them over the next four weeks, trying to find a chink in Binns� armour and a voice loud enough to be heard above the din of pre-election announcements.
Of course, the two other PC governments in the Maritimes felt comfortable in calling the public to the polls in the last few months, and they were surprised, bruised and battered by the end of election night.
Binns has been busy trying to prove that he hasn�t grown complacent in his two terms as premier, especially during the most recent term in which his party held all but one seat in the legislature. He�s spent the past few months piling on the mileage, getting home late, and delivering speeches about his government's accomplishments. Now he's putting his record to the test.
The other Island parties, the Liberals and New Democrats, are eyeing the election as an opportunity to restore voter confidence and build credibility lost during the Tory blue crush of April 2000. When MLAs last sat in the spring, there were 26 Tories in the house. A single Liberal MLA provided the opposition.
The Tories� record on fiscal responsibility is bound to be a target in the campaign. During its most recent mandate, the government has shown an inability to live within its means. There have been three deficit budgets since 2000, for which Binns has tried to deflect criticism by citing such events as the potato wart crisis three years ago and the recent SARS health scare.
And there's another familiar chant - especially in the year he chairs the premier's council: blame Ottawa.
"It's the provinces that are carrying the major part of health-care costs,� he says. �You know health care gets 42 per cent of everything we spend on P.E.I., and there's no sign of that changing. And so to meet that need and to provide the services we think people want, we clearly think that there's [a need for] a federal partner."
Provincial Liberal Leader Robert Ghiz is quick to echo the sentiments of Prime Minister Jean Chretien when asked about the fiscal shape of the province. He says both equalization and transfer payments have increased, and the province has seen windfalls from Ottawa over the last few years.
"I think one of the great mysteries is where has the money gone?" he says, hinting at one of the few vulnerabilities the Liberals see in the Tory game plan.
Binns may be quiet, methodical, and often accused of being boring. But here on the Island flashy and slick doesn�t wash, and the Binns government keeps infighting in the backroom, and public mistakes to a minimum. The Friday morning Tory caucus meetings bring all MLAs up to date on government business and keep everyone on the same page.
"That allows people to bring issues forward to put them out on the table and immediately you get feedback from the whole group. And you can tell if an idea is going to fly or not."
While New Brunswick Premier Bernard Lord and Nova Scotia Premier John Hamm were having their wings clipped at the polls, the Island government was working to ease public concerns over a number of items that could have become issues in an election.
Binns announced the end of the contract with Cleve Myers of the Island Waste Management Corporation. In the spring session it was revealed Myers, who set up one of the most progressive recycling programs in Canada, was making an average of $148,371 a year working 25 hours a week, and there were accusations he hired his daughter to work for a short time with the waste management corporation.
Myers did nothing wrong, except make a high salary in a province dependent on the seasonal economy, where the average weekly wage registers just over $500. His management contract isn�t being renewed, and he's to be replaced by a mid-level government employee.
On Aug. 1, the province took care of another pesky political problem, announcing changes to the way property taxes are calculated and capping the maximum level those taxes can increase in a single year.
That was only the beginning of a month that saw 40 news releases from various government departments. A quick count of the government Web site shows there were 28 in August 2002, by comparison.
Car insurance was another of Binns' targets in the month leading up to this election. It nearly did in Bernard Lord over in New Brunswick, and reared its head again in Nova Scotia, but it won�t here if the Tories have their way.
On Aug. 5, Binns told Islanders he's giving the Island Regulatory and Appeals Commission authority over automobile insurance rates. He also placed a cap of $2,500 on compensation for minor injuries.
Aug. 27 saw the government announce plans to have the same regulatory body resume watch over Maritime Electric's rates. That was after the premier and the minister responsible spent part of the spring defending attacks over the rising price of electricity.
The Kyoto crowd was appeased when plans were announced to set up a number of wind turbines in North Cape. There was money for the arts, interest free loans for farmers to buy into a meat packing plant, and just when you thought it was safe to turn off the fax machine, a grove of trees in Kensington was turned into a provincially protected forest.
Island voters at the SARS concert in Toronto - or near a TV from Milan to Morell - watched people rock with the Rolling Stones while stuffing back Island baked potatoes and slurping Malpeque oysters. The Tory PR team was in full swing.
Breaking in a new leader
While the premier was scurrying about the province - cheques in hand - sharing strawberry shortcake and corn on the cob with voters, a neophyte politician was getting used to running his Liberal party.
"I've said all along I go into things to win," 29-year-old Robert Ghiz says a few days before the election call. "We've assembled a great team of candidates from one end of this province to the other. It's been an exciting few months now with these candidates knocking on doors and we'll be aiming to win."
Ghiz inherited the party on April 5, complete with its baggage: a $300,000 debt, a single seat in the legislature, and embarrassing fights between the lone MLA and the party president.
For the past three years, Ronnie MacKinley, a rogue from the moment he won his seat in Province House, was the only voice of opposition in the legislature. He tried hard and occasionally grabbed some political ground, but in the end seemed only able to toss pebbles against the walls of Fortress Binns.
Ghiz has held off on releasing the Liberal vision for the future. After winning the leadership he embarked on a series of grassroots meetings to develop a party platform.
One of his main concerns is that the Binns government has not lived up to the promises it made to rural communities.
Ghiz says he hasn�t contemplated any scenario other than winning the election. "I haven't even thought about it, you aim to win the election, and if not, which I hope doesn�t happen, you just keep working away in the best interest of Islanders."
Ghiz has a serious fight in his own riding, against George MacDonald, the mayor of Charlottetown, who switched his political gaze from City Hall to Province House mid-summer. In a province where political patronage still rules the campaign trail - despite what those elected will tell you - the Liberal leader isn't guaranteed a seat inside the rail.
Swimming against the tide
Islanders remain steadfast in the belief that being on the side of government will get your district further than being in opposition. It'll also mean access to the seasonal jobs and other government employment programs that'll qualify you for employment insurance.
"It is a myth, but it's a powerful one," says NDP Leader Gary Robichaud. "We have to really push the idea that it�s really important we have some New Democrats elected, but it's not an easy message."
So you can imagine the scope of Robichaud's task when the NDP has no seats, no government funding, not even a phone line. The NDP leader's home office is HQ in the days leading up to the vote.
Running for the NDP in P.E.I. is a lesson in humility, and a quest for credibility. But a perpetually upbeat Robichaud is quick to point out the silver lining: the Island New Democrats are only a single seat behind the Liberals.
Robichaud, like Ghiz, is untested as a party leader. However, he does have one provincial election campaign under his belt. During the last election he ran in the Wilmot-Summerside district, taking 12 per cent of the popular vote.
His job is to sell a party built on labour movement ideals and social justice in a province where there are few smoke stacks and where securing your own seasonal job is more important than giving everyone a voice in the halls of power.
"The roots of the New Democrats are that it is a party of ideology, and that creates certain advantages and disadvantages,� Robichaud says. �You do have members of the party that think it's not that important that we elect a bunch of people, that perhaps they see the party as more of a movement - as long as we can foster change in other ways to try and enlighten people and point people in a certain direction maybe that's good enough."
The NDP has been the only party to continue to gain in popular vote over the last few provincial elections. Overall it captured 6,673 votes or 8.39 per cent of the vote in April 2000. In November 1996, it ended the campaign with 6,283 votes or seven per cent of the popular vote.
That election made history for the party when a country doctor named Herb Dickieson, who spoke out when the Liberals tried to downsize the community hospital in O'Leary in the early �90s, became the first NDP member of the Island legislature.
This is only the third election in which the party will field a candidate in every riding. Although it has had a presence on the Island for 40 years, it has just a decade of substantial political history.
This time around, Robichaud says his main objectives are to build credibility and prove that Dickieson's election was not a fluke.
"On the most modest side, [I�d like to see] an increase in the popular vote," says the high school teacher when asked about his goals. "What would be fantastic is if we could elect two or three people. I think that's a realistic goal based on the quality of the candidates we have now."
The value of opposition
Robichuad entertains no thoughts of the NDP forming the next government and prefers to remind Islanders that a strong opposition, with the social conscience provided by his party is important in light of nearly a decade of lopsided governments on Prince Edward Island.
It's something Ghiz also believes, but he jokes that Binns should be able to put together a great opposition.
"I think it's important to have a strong opposition. It's extremely important and our system has been lopsided over the last 10 or 15 years. We'll have to wait and see what happens,� Ghiz says.
To compensate for the lack of opposition, Binns says, his government has gone out of its way to encourage public involvement in the political process. "We've tried as much as possible to encourage town hall meetings, regular office hours - it's all part of being accountable." He�s also put TV cameras in the Legislature, and pledges to continue holding two sittings per year. "We've tried to give the public better access to the government so that we can keep in touch as much as possible."
Regardless of who wins, this election will mark a turning point in Island politics. In all likelihood it will be the last election in which the perpetually popular Binns runs as Conservative leader. With his pledge to spend 10 years on the provincial stage, and his habit of calling early elections, this fall's vote would fit Binns� timetable for an exit in 2006. So we can expect the issue of Tory succession to arise during this campaign.
"I'm making a commitment for another mandate, and that will basically fill out that 10-year interval if you like,� says Binns. �I think there's always room for new ideas, new people in politics, and I don't think anybody should wear out their welcome. But in my case, I think I can still achieve some things and I look forward to doing that."