P.E.I. PCs need to 'face reality,' 'shake things up,' say leadership hopefuls

The five people vying to become the next leader of the PC party on P.E.I. spoke in front of a packed house in Pooles Corner Thursday night in the first of three public debates organized by the party.

Crowd of 200 at hall to hear candidates in first of three debates

(From left) Allan Dale, Sarah Stewart-Clark, Kevin Arsenault, Dennis King and Shawn Driscoll are all in the race to become the next leader of the P.E.I. Progressive Conservative Party. (Kerry Campbell/CBC)

The five people vying to become the next leader of the Progressive Conservative Party on P.E.I. spoke in front of a packed house in Pooles Corner Thursday night in the first of three public debates organized by the party.

About 200 people packed into Kaylee Hall to hear the candidates.

And while topics like the ferry service (all five support it) and forced amalgamation (all five are against it) didn't produce fault lines between the candidates, a question about how to attract more young people to the party drew some of the most impassioned debate.

"We have to be mature enough as a party to look around the room, and to face reality," said candidate Dennis King, speaking to a room with a broad range of ages but with no shortage of grey hair.

About 200 people packed into Kaylee Hall in Poole's Corner for the first of three leadership debates for the P.E.I. PC Party. (Kerry Campbell/CBC)

"If we want to attract new and younger people to this party we have to stop being angry and we have to stop being divisive, and we have to stop the infighting … and start telling people what we're for, start telling people why they would be welcomed into our party."

3rd convention in 4 years

It's been more than a decade since the PCs were in power in P.E.I., and the party has slipped into third place in recent polls, behind the Green Party and the governing Liberals.

The leadership convention scheduled for Feb. 9 will be the party's third since 2015. Current leader James Aylward was in place less than a year before announcing in September he would be stepping down, saying he had not made "a strong enough connection with Islanders."

Leadership candidate Allan Dale portrayed himself Thursday night as a "clean slate" for a party in need of another reset.

"This party needs to change, it needs to look differently folks," Dale said in response to the question about attracting more youth to the party.

"Until we change the look and feel of our party the youth are never going to come towards us."

But Sarah Stewart-Clark said the values the PCs need to espouse are already written into the party's constitution, which promises to treat "all P.E.I. citizens as being equally valuable, regardless of ability, race, gender, religion, language, marital status and/or sexual orientation."

Race full of newcomers

"Those are values that our young people hold dear to their hearts," said Stewart-Clark. "What we need to do is better communicate that that's who we are as a party, and we need to reduce the barriers that exist that make people feel unwelcome in our party."

Stewart-Clark is a PC newcomer in a race full of them. None of the five candidates has ever served as an MLA. King has the longest history with the party, having served as communications director for the last PC premier of P.E.I., Pat Binns.

By comparison, the last PC leadership convention became a showdown between two sitting MLAs who tended to agree on a lot of points.

Leadership candidate Shawn Driscoll has taken aim in his campaign at the backroom politics of the party. While making no specific mention of the backroom Thursday night, he too expressed the need for the party to change.

'We need to shake things up'

"We can't go on with business as usual on the Island," Driscoll said. "We need to shake things up in our party, then here in the province."

Driscoll used the debate Thursday night to add another policy position to the growing list on his campaign's website: a tax credit for families of children with special needs.

Leadership candidate Kevin Arsenault kept referring Thursday night to the problem of corruption in government, and while he heaped most of the blame on the Liberals who've been in power since 2007, Arsenault found enough blame to spread some around.

"If we're going to be honest with ourselves, and I'm not going to say it's all the Liberals," he said. "If you look at the last three decades of partisan politics and the flip-flopping between the Tories and the Grits, you're going to see a system of politics that has turned a lot of people off."

Arsenault pitched himself as the leader who can finally "shut the door on government corruption." 

Another leadership debate is scheduled for Tues., Jan. 8 in Summerside, with the final debate set for Thurs., Jan. 17 in Charlottetown.

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About the Author

Kerry Campbell

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Kerry Campbell is the provincial affairs reporter for CBC P.E.I., covering politics and the provincial legislature.


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