A Scottish-Canadian dentist-turned-politician has led the Green party to form its first official opposition in Canadian history, as the Progressive Conservatives won a minority government in Prince Edward Island.
It’s the first minority government for PEI since the 1890s, and it remains unclear exactly how the PCs, led by Dennis King, will govern—either partnering with the Liberals or the Greens to pass legislation. Technically, if no party wins a majority, the other parties may form a coalition. The Liberals and Greens together could potentially form government, with 14 seats together, although no party indicated Tuesday that that was in a possibility.
"Welcome to a new era of Island politics!" King said at a rally Tuesday night.
People cheered and hugged each other at Green party headquarters as the results came in.
Green Party Leader Peter Bevan-Baker, an affable guy who still has his Scottish lilt and plays trumpet in a local jazz band, waved at supporters, a big grin on his face that quickly faded as he began his speech.
“For me personally I don’t think I’ve ever felt as overwhelmed with both joy and grief simultaneously,” he said, referring to the death of his friend and fellow Green candidate Josh Underhay and his six-year-old son over the long weekend. The pair died when their canoe accidentally overturned. “My heart is so full, but it’s also breaking.”
“Besides being a beloved teacher and a passionate political advocate and a devoted father, and so many other things, Josh was also a brilliant musician, and that’s actually how Josh and I got to know each other, was through music, through our shared love of music,” the Green leader said. “Like me, Josh played the trumpet, played it much better than I ever did or will. I don’t think Josh ever played a boring trumpet solo.”
“Josh’s trumpet solo was far too short,” he said.
“There is often beauty in a complex arrangement of musical notes, and there is a hidden grace in complex emotions,” he continued, encouraging the crowd to embrace the evening’s mixed feelings, including joy and hope. “Because today is about hope, the hope that we can create a better future for our children and grandchildren.”
He said the Greens asked Islanders to put their faith in them. “Islanders responded by granting us a record number of seats—by far the most seats won by a Green party anywhere in Canada,” Bevan-Baker said.
"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," he added, according to The Canadian Press.
The PCs won 12 seats and the Greens won nine when we hit publish—while the governing Liberals finished in third. They had triumphed in three previous provincial elections and governed since 2007.
The Liberals governed during an economic boom, with the Conference Board of Canada estimating its GDP will grow by 3.2 percent this year—more than any other province. Under leader Wade MacLauchlan, they pulled off only five seats Tuesday night.
MacLauchlan lost his seat. “It’s as simple as the tide turned,” he told CBC.
Ahead of the election, the polls showed a three-way race, with the Greens inching ahead. Soon after the polls closed, the Progressive Conservatives formed a minority government—PEI’s first ever minority government in a province that has, for its entire history, swung back and forth between majority Liberal and PC governments. The PCs won on the strength of their support in rural ridings, setting up an interesting rural-urban divide in the next sitting of the legislature.
The conservative win in PEI also continued a trend of recent PC wins in provincial legislatures across Canada; now seven provinces out of 10 have PC governments.
While the Green Party hasn’t formed government before in Canada, it has propped them up. In BC, an NDP minority government is supported by three Green seats. The Green Party of Canada is independent of other Green Parties worldwide, of which there are more than 100.
The victory builds on Bevan-Baker’s previous success in 2015, when he became the first Green candidate elected in the province, with 54 percent of the vote in his rural riding. He had run for the Greens in nine federal and provincial elections before he finally won a seat.
Asked why the Greens experienced an unexpected surge this election, UPEI political science professor Peter McKenna pointed squarely at Bevan-Baker: “He’s the difference maker.”
“He’s been leading the polls for the last two years, and he’s obviously been able to connect with islanders on a personal level,” he said.
The Green leader is seen as competent, bright, trustworthy and honest, McKenna explained.
“[He has] performed very well on the floor of the PEI legislative assembly, and he’s never been in office, so that’s always a plus. And on top of that I think there’s a real sense, and I think rightly so, that this is your quintessential friendly family dentist in rural PEI.”
PC leader King promised to lower taxes, bring wine and beer to corner stores (similar to PC leader Doug Ford’s move in Ontario), and spend $1 million on a land bank to buy land from retired farmers and rent it to younger Islanders who want to become farmers. The Greens made a similar promise to set up a land bank in their first year, spending $4.5 million to buy land and rent it out at affordable rates to farmers.
The PCs proposed many tax cuts, but their platform did not address the carbon tax. The PCs have said they wouldn’t fight the federal carbon tax in court, but according to CBC King called it “a punitive tax for Islanders simply because…most of our population is rural. If you live in Tyne Valley and have to work in Summerside, you have one option to get to work and that’s to drive a car.”
Although the Green Party of Canada has traditionally focused on environmental values, Bevan-Baker led with the island’s top issue: healthcare.
The Greens promised numerous healthcare improvements for the aging province, where retention of doctors and long patient lists are a major issue. They promised to improve services at rural hospitals by creating healthcare hubs and recruiting new medical residents and specialists to train and work on PEI. They also promised to extend dental benefits to people on social assistance.
Bevan-Baker vowed to balance the budget, and increase the minimum wage—currently at $12.25—to $15 by 2023.
The Greens said they would spend another $10 million on social assistance, $5.5 million to add more affordable housing, $2.5 million to extend dental care to people on social assistance, and $3.5 million to raise wages for early childcare educators.
A previous Liberal government promised wage increases for such educators, but never followed through. Their wages have not kept pace with educators who have the same two years of post-secondary education.
“New spaces and [financial] commitments are great ideas but if there is not qualified, quality staff because of low pay, there is no moving forward,” my former daycare teacher Lisa Cochrane MacLaren, who lives in PEI and still teaches children, told me on Monday.
The environment was not the number one issue in the election, but the Greens did promise to add incentives for people to buy electric cars and install solar panels. Bevan-Baker also promised to implement a federally-mandated carbon tax at a time that other provincial leaders are fighting it in court.
In a Student Vote video, 56-year-old Bevan-Baker personally apologized for how baby boomers have treated planet earth.
“My generation has done a really terrible job of living on this planet and I want to personally apologize for that. My motivation for getting involved in politics was to leave a livable earth for my children.”
Bevan-Baker made waves in 2012 when he was arrested and fined for protesting a highway realignment that would have paved part of a provincial park.
Unlike the recent Alberta election, which took on a bitter tone, the PEI campaign was notably pleasant. A CBC panel even referred to it as a “nice-off.”
This was especially true when Underhay and his son tragically died in the canoe accident. All parties suspended their campaigns out of respect, with some of his competitors even removing their campaign signs in the district.
Elections PEI cancelled the vote in Underhay’s district, saying a byelection would be held within three months.
Bevan-Baker also ran on a promise to restore public trust in government.
Election day landed on the same day as a court hearing for a lawsuit Capital Markets Technology Inc. brought against the PEI government, alleging breach of contract under a previous Liberal government.
In 2011, the company was in secret talks with the province to develop an e-gaming hub and financial transaction platform that the province expected would generate $85 million a year in revenue. But in 2012, the province backed out, and the Securities Commission of PEI launched an investigation into the company, which CMT alleges ruined its reputation.
The original plan, which would have built the e-gaming hub on First Nations land, was actually illegal, with a similar plan used by the Mafia in Montreal, the Globe and Mail pointed out. The plan was never actually executed, but public trust in elected officials was shaken by the scandal that had everyone and their mother talking, even if they were somewhat confused by the technical particulars.
“What we really need to do is create more robust oversight mechanisms here so that we never, ever again end up with the situation that we have with PNP and e-gaming,” the Green leader told CBC in an interview last week.
PNP, the Provincial Nominee Program, was yet another scandal in which whistleblowers accused the same Liberal government of breaching their privacy when they came forward with allegations of fraud and bribery within the program in 2011.
The Island, which only has a population of roughly 150,000, has a long history with progressive firsts in Canadian politics. Besides being the “Cradle of Confederation,” Prince Edward Island was the first province to elect a female premier, a gay man as premier and a person of non-European descent as premier, Lebanese-Canadian Joe Ghiz.
Follow Hilary Beaumont on Twitter.