P.E.I. election has lessons for all of Canada

Dennis King. Photo: Dennis King/Twitter

When media organizations announced the result of Tuesday's election in Prince Edward Island (P.E.I.), they all called it a Progressive Conservative (PC) minority government. That's because the PCs got the largest number of seats, 12 out of 27. The Green Party got an unprecedented eight seats and the defeated Liberals won six, giving the two parties a combined 14, a majority of the seats.

The Greens and Liberals could decide to combine forces and govern. That is the current arrangement in British Columbia, where the NDP has fewer seats than the Liberals, but governs with the support of the third-place Greens.

And so, what Islanders elected on Tuesday, April 23, is not, in fact, a minority government for any party. It is a legislature in which no party has a majority of seats. In the U.K., they would call it a hung parliament.

With such an outcome, it is not a foregone conclusion that the party with the most seats (but not more than half) will be able to gain the confidence of the legislature and keep power.

In B.C.'s 2017 election, the Liberals won the most seats, but fell short of a majority. Shortly thereafter, they tried, but failed, to win the legislature's confidence. The NDP and Greens then forged a formal alliance, a confidence-and-supply agreement, and presented it to then-lieutenant-governor Judith Guichon. She called on John Horgan's NDP to form a government and seek the confidence of the legislature. Horgan won his first and all subsequent votes of confidence, and is still in power today, nearly two years later.

The same could, at least in theory, happen in P.E.I.

We could have a Green-led government, either in a power-sharing coalition with the Liberals, or in a B.C.-style minority. Such an outcome is not likely, however, at least not in the short term. That's because the PC leader, Dennis King, has clearly said he favours a collaborative style of governing, and the other parties will be inclined to give him a chance to prove he means it.

A pro-choice PC leader who wants a carbon neutral society

King is new to electoral, but not backroom, politics. He was a communications advisor to the last PC premier, Pat Binns, and was long active behind the scenes in Island politics. Earlier in his career, the current PC leader worked as a journalist for Island newspapers and as a communications manager for government and an Indigenous community.

More recently, King had re-invented himself as "Denny" King, the professional storyteller. In that capacity, he promised potential clients "an evening of off the cuff storytelling, talking politics, religion, liquor and language -- maybe even a local impression or two." The clincher of his pitch was that if you added "a dash of live music" you would have "one hell of a kitchen party."

Polls had predicted the Greens would come first in popular vote, but it did not turn out that way.

The Green party, led by Peter Bevan-Baker got over 30 per cent of the vote, a historic high for the party in any election in Canada, anywhere. However, in a defeat for the pollsters, it was the PCs who came first, with 37 per cent of the vote. That result will offer a measure of encouragement to the Island PCs' federal Conservative cousins. In the 2015 election, the Harper Conservatives badly lost all four seats to the Liberals. They only managed to get more than 20 per cent of the vote in a single riding, the one that had been held by then minister of revenue Gail Shea.

Andrew Scheer's federal Conservatives should not over interpret Tuesday's P.E.I. result, however. Dennis King is no Doug Ford or Jason Kenney. In fact, he ran, first for his party's leadership and then for the premiership, not as an anti-environment, right-wing ideologue, but as a consensus-seeking pragmatist. His principal promise was to "loosen the partisan grip on our democratic institutions." He has repeatedly pledged to consider all "good ideas proposed by all parties."

King is unambiguously pro-choice on abortion and has said he wants to create a carbon-neutral society, a policy that is light years away from anything mainland-Conservatives advocate. In his victory speech on election night, the PC leader told supporters: "I think Islanders want us [the elected politicians] to consult broadly with each other and with Islanders, and that's the kind of leadership that I'm going to provide."

It is hard to remember the last time we heard a federal Conservative leader talk that way.

Greens can now prove their mettle

The Greens have a right to feel pretty euphoric about the result, even if it fell short of pollsters' predictions. They will have a chance to prove their worth in Opposition and establish their credentials as an alternative government.

How much this result will mean for Elizabeth May's federal Greens is difficult to say. It is true that May's party has been doing relatively well in recent polls, but one should not read too much into those numbers. Voters seem to feel more comfortable parking their vote with the Greens between elections than actually voting for them.

Those who, mostly, want to avoid the catastrophe of an Andrew Scheer victory, federally, in October, will feel highly ambivalent about the rise of yet another party on the notionally progressive side of the political map.

In P.E.I., the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system just delivered a highly unusual proportional vote. Each party got pretty close to its share of the vote in seats. That, however, almost never happens. Normally, FPTP disproportionately rewards the first-place party with a seat haul far in excess, proportionately, of its popular vote.  

The harsh and unavoidable fact is that if, in the coming federal election, voters who share broad, general agreement on the environment and on social justice divide their support three ways, the party on the other side of that consensus will almost certainly be the one to benefit most.

In P.E.I., there was, together with the election, a referendum on a proposal to ditch FPTP and adopt a mixed member proportional system. It narrowly failed. The change option got a bit less than 50 per cent of the vote.

The fact that in P.E.I.'s legislative election the current system delivered a fairly accurate reflection of voters' choices this time might now lull Islanders into believing they do not need electoral reform.

That would be a mistake.

The people of P.E.I., and of Canada as a whole, would do well to remember that Tuesday's highly proportional result in P.E.I. was a very rare one for the first-past-the-post system.

It would be foolhardy to expect such electoral lightning to strike twice.

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble's politics reporter.

Photo: Dennis King/Twitter

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