Q & A

'They rewarded me': James Aylward on why he won PC leadership, and what's next

On Friday night James Aylward was elected leader of P.E.I.'s Progressive Conservative Party.

This interview has been edited for length

'The real work begins now,' says PC Leader James Aylward. (CBC)

On Friday night James Aylward was elected leader of P.E.I.'s Progressive Conservative Party.

On Monday morning, he sat down with Matt Rainnie for a chat on CBC Radio's Island Morning.

Why do you think it was that you won this leadership race?

I've got a little bit more experience. I don't think it hurt that I ran for the leader as well back in 2015. I've been very engaged with the electorate and feel that I've been providing a good voice for Islanders and I think they rewarded me.

It's been a while since your party has had a full-time, official leader. How important do you think that is now heading into the next couple of years?

I think it's paramount. The leadership race was a lot of work but the real work begins now. As you said, in just a few weeks from going into the fall sitting of the legislative assembly. There's still a lot of active files that we need to question the government on and we have a group of eight very dedicated Opposition members in our caucus and I think people are going to see that we're really hitting our stride this fall.

You made a number of promises on Saturday in your speech, including more resources for health care, lower student-teacher ratios, and end to fee increases. How are you going to pay for all of those promises?

First and foremost government needs to be fiscally responsible. I've seen over the last six years in particular, since I've been elected, but prior to that as well, we have government that seems to not hold government purse strings to account the way they should. I've seen excessive spending on projects, I've seen countless consultants hired, reports that are written just to sit on a shelf. All of these things cost Islanders hundreds of thousands, millions of dollars really.

So that's how you'd balance it out?

Certainly. Someone asked me the other day about my statement on education and reducing the classroom size, and I said as far as I'm concerned education is not negotiable. We need to be providing the best possible education for our children here on P.E.I.

I know mental health has been a key topic for you over the years. The province says it's trying to get more psychiatrists here. What would you do differently?

I don't think psychiatrists are the golden answer.

We need to look at psychologists, I think we need to look at counsellors. Not everyone who's experiencing a mental health issue or an addiction is necessarily looking for a psychiatrist. Yes, they're an integral part of the whole landscape around this file, but there are so many more resources that we need to ensure are in place.

So what resources would you like to see in place? What would be your priority?

It ties into education. We're talking now an up to four-year wait list for a child to be assessed in the education system, for a psychological assessment. I think we really need to focus on that and bring that down to a more measurable time frame. If somebody with a mental health issue or an addiction is asking for help today they need help today because tomorrow could be too late.

How would you assess the state of the party you're leading right now?

I haven't experienced a time in the party where we've been so cohesive, focused on moving forward.

I just see all of the different components coming together. We have some great individuals that are coming forward that are already speaking to us about seeking a nomination in various districts all across P.E.I. I think we're finally firing on all cylinders.

We're looking at District 11 and the upcoming byelection there. How big a focus is that for you right now?

Second to the fall sitting of the legislature it's right up there. I have a meeting later on today with a very credible candidate that wants to sit down and talk with me about the possibility of seeking the nomination. I know there's at least two or three other people eyeing that as well.

If you look at recent polling numbers, do those concern you when you look at the state of the party?

No, not at all.

We've gone now for quite a period of time without a permanent leader and if you ask the average Islander they'll tell you they've been looking to find out who the next permanent leader will be, and that's when the real polling will start.

You knocked on a lot of doors, talked to a lot of people, what is it generally you were hearing?

Dissatisfaction with what they're seeing on the Island right now. Whether it was the exercise through the education renewal program last year, health concerns are always a huge one, taxes. You talk to business people, even besides what the federal government's been talking about doing, the provincial government as well with the increase in the corporate business tax, the excessive red tape and bureaucracy that they have to deal with on a daily basis. It's frustrating for our entrepreneurs.

What do you anticipate will be the most challenging part of being leader?

I haven't really thought about that, to be honest. I thrive with challenge. I like to keep busy, and I like to have a great team around me. I can only see that being a positive experience.

With files from Island Morning