By Jamie Barrie
Islanders were knocking on doors, calling supporters and hammering in lawn signs furiously preparing for their election. The polls were predicting unprecedented results. Long time Liberals and Progressive Conservatives were in full panic mode that their reign over Prince Edward Island politics may come to an end. Would they lose power in what would be considered the most obstinate default possible? As they watched the polls flip between a majority to a minority for the Green Party their thoughts were of disbelief. Would P.E.I. elect the first Green government and help authenticate the party in Canadian politics?
The chances were good that the Greens would govern P.E.I. according to the polls. At the very least, they stood a solid chance at being the official opposition. Now led by a very charismatic man who helped overcome the credibility issues plaguing the party for years surely victory was close. The party also worked hard on their platform choosing planks to downplay their past reputation as environmental extremists. This helped attract a very qualified field of candidates that further enhanced the believability of the party in the election. Across Canada the Greens have struggled to build a winning combination which has held the party back but something different was happening in P.E.I. The media started to pay close attention to what might be a ground-breaking election.
Everything came to a sudden stop on Friday April 19th. Word spread quickly late in the day that a tragedy had struck the Green Party family. The RCMP issued a statement the next morning detailing that two canoeists were reported missing Friday. The two did not arrive at an agreed pick-up point along the Hillsborough River. The river cuts through the middle of the island and eventually makes its way to Charlottetown where it meets the Northumberland Strait. Firefighters, police and a volunteer ground search team were dispatched and found the pair in the water near their overturned canoe. Both, wearing floatation devices, were declared dead at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Charlottetown.
A Green party official confirmed the horrific news on Saturday that Josh Underhay and his young son had died in that accident on Friday afternoon. Underhay, a married father of two boys, was the Greens’ candidate in District 9, Charlottetown-Hillsborough Park. Underhay was a teacher at Birchwood Intermediate School. He was a gifted musician who had a keen interest in linguistics speaking English, French, Spanish, Mandarin and Czech. Green party Leader Peter Bevan-Baker issued a statement that he was overcome with grief when he learned of their deaths. “Josh has been a dear friend and colleague of mine for many years, as a volunteer, musician, passionate cycling advocate and Green party supporter,” Bevan-Baker said, “I simply cannot imagine how much (Underhay) will be missed.”
He immediately suspended all Green Party campaigning for the election. The other parties suspended their campaign activity for the day on Sunday. The government quickly announced that the riding of District 9, Charlottetown-Hillsborough Park would not be included in the April 23rd election. Elections Prince Edward Island stated a by-election would be held at a later date.
As the election results began rolling in on Tuesday viewers saw that clearly the polls were discernibly off. It was evident that the Liberals three term reign was over along with their sixteen-seat majority. The Progressive Conservative Party led by Denis King went out front and stayed there. It would not be a break-through of national notoriety for the Green Party. The Liberals sadly had to swallow the veracity their party was headed for irrelevance, and the New Democrats watched hoping that they would not be completely shutout.
When the night was done, Prince Edward Island voters elected a Progressive Conservative minority government. It was the first PC win since 2003 and ended the Liberals’ grip on power. Heading into the vote, Wade MacLauchlan’s team had a majority government with 16 seats. The PC’s, led by Dennis King held 8 seats. Peter Bevan-Baker’s Green Party held two seats. An independent member laid claim to the remaining seat.
Now, King and the Progressive Conservatives flipped the narrative and ended the night with 12 seats. Bevan-Baker and the Greens were not in power, but they were very happy to be in second place with 8 seats. The Liberals drifted off the charts with only 6 seats left from their 16-seat majority. A small victory for MacLauchlan’s Liberals was they held nearly the same percent of the popular vote as the Greens. The NDP are a party in trouble on PEI. Once again, they did not win a seat and gathered only 3% of the vote. While P.E.I. has no specific rule on the topic, it is assumed one seat is required to have official party status in that province.
This is not a complete result. Newly elected Premier King must now call a by-election for district nine. That really won’t change any positions unless King can find a party willing to provide a speaker. He might just have an opportunity with the Greens. If someone was willing, Greens would still be the official opposition and have a speaker within their party. The party as per their own rules, do not require elected members to vote along party lines nor does the leader hold any special powers. If by chance an individual perceives it to be in the best interest for their electoral district to be speaker, they are free to pursue the opportunity.
The true test of the Greens will be whether they can stay relevant. Having led the polls since August their rapid decline could be a signal that Islanders wanted change but were not ready to leave themselves out in the cold in Ottawa where the Greens are far from influential. Undoubtedly, the Greens will be out to show they offer a different style of political leadership, something that Canadians appear to be looking for. If the Greens perform in the same manner as a traditional party their gains will soon turn to losses.
P.E.I. saw a decline of nearly six percent in overall voter participation in the election with the turnout being 76.3 percent. Most provinces would rejoice at that number but not Prince Edward Island. It was the lowest turnout in any P.E.I. election since 2000. The last election in 2015 saw 82.1% of eligible voters cast a ballot. As for the referendum on this ballot, Islanders rejected a switch to a proportional representation electoral system by a slim margin. Parties had agreed that whichever side won more than 50 per cent of the votes cast in at least 17 of the 27 ridings would win. The “No” side had captured almost 51 per cent of the total votes, with the “Yes” holding 49 per cent.