Voters in P.E.I. have shed their century-old embrace of the Island’s two-party system, electing a Tory minority government and handing the upstart Green party official Opposition status for the first time.
With all polls reporting Tuesday, the Tories won 12 seats, the Greens held nine, and the incumbent Liberals, led by Premier Wade MacLauchlan, had won five.
The Greens had led in opinion polls since August, prompting speculation they could be poised to form Canada’s first Green government.
Still, their strong showing on election night proved to be a breakthrough for a party that did not hold a seat in the legislature until 2015. That’s when party Leader Peter Bevan-Baker won in the general election – after nine unsuccessful runs for office on the Island and in Ontario.
“Islanders responded (to us) by granting us a record number of seats – by far the most seats ever by a Green party in Canada,” he told a boisterous crowd at the PEI Brewing Company in Charlottetown.
“I’m a strong believer in the capacity of minority government to create a collaborative environment where competing parties can put the interests of constituents and Islanders first.”
Progressive Conservative Leader Dennis King, a former political staffer and consultant, was elected to lead the party only two months ago. He won the riding of Brackley-Hunter River.
The Tories enjoyed a boost in the polls last month, leaving them in a virtual dead heat with the Greens and Liberals as the campaign began.
The Tory victory represents the latest in a series of gains for right-leaning parties, including wins in Alberta, Quebec, New Brunswick and Ontario – all within the last year.
Earlier this year, the Island’s Progressive Conservatives were largely regarded as a dysfunctional organization, having churned through no less than six leaders in the past eight years.
Despite past infighting within Tory ranks, King was lauded for running a solid campaign, mainly by reinforcing a relentlessly positive message – a tried-and-true tactic among Island politicians.
A former communications director for former Tory premier Pat Binns, King performed well on the hustings and in a series of decidedly polite leaders debates.
However, the rookie leader’s run for office was marred by a mild controversy over a series of tweets that were supposed to be funny, but instead offended some, who criticized them for being sexist and homophobic.
King, who also describes himself as a comedian and story-teller with a progressive political outlook, admitted that some of the tweets were inappropriate.
Among other things, King promised to expand beer and wine sales to convenience stores.
Access to family doctors emerged as a key issue in the campaign. All four parties talked about recruiting more physicians. According to Health PEI, there are 13,083 Islanders on the waiting list for a family doctor
The Greens’ rise in popularity generated a national buzz during an otherwise lacklustre campaign.
During the race, Bevan-Baker – a Scottish-born dentist – tried to persuade Islanders that the Greens care about more than just the environment, offering a platform that focused on a range of social issues.
The Green leader, who was elected to the legislature as the first Green member in 2015, won his riding of New Haven-Rocky Point.
The Liberals were seeking a fourth term in office, having repeatedly reminded Islanders that the province’s economy remains the strongest in the country.
MacLauchlan failed to win his seat.
“It’s simple: the tide turned. We’ve had four years of good government, responsible government and exceptionally good management of the province’s finances,” he told reporters.
“We left no stone unturned. We presented good policy. We presented a good team and we went and did the work that candidates do.”
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say P.E.I. is on a tear, posting impressive numbers for higher wages, employment, immigration, housing starts, exports, retail sales and tourism.
However, voters appeared reluctant to give MacLauchlan credit for boosting the economy, a sentiment that was reflected in his relatively low personal popularity ratings.
The Island’s New Democrats, led by 57-year-old Joe Byrne, were not in contention in any ridings.
When the legislature was dissolved, the Liberals held 16 seats in the 27-seat legislature, the Tories had eight and the Green party had two seats. There was one Independent.
A total of 14 seats are needed for a majority, but only 26 of the 27 seats were contested Tuesday.
On Saturday, Elections P.E.I. postponed the vote in the district of Charlottetown-Hillsborough Park following the deaths of Green party candidate, Josh Underhay, and his young son in a boating mishap on the Hillsborough River.
A byelection will be held in the riding within the next three months.
Aside from the election outcome, voters will also learn the results of a binding referendum on electoral reform, which will determine if Islanders want to keep the first-past-the-post system or change to a mixed member proportional representation.
By Kevin Bissett and Teresa Wright