At the time this article was written Agar
Adamson was professor of Political Science at Acadia University in Wolfville,
Nova Scotia. This is a revised version of a paper presented to the 1983
Political Science Association meetings in Vancouver.
Due to the small constituencies, a unique
style of government and politics has developed on Prince Edward Island. Many
members (four in 1982) are elected with majorities of less than one hundred
votes. Pleasing the various local interest groups, however small, is crucial to
continued success on election day. Public attitudes to politics are a curious
mixture of serious campaigning and social events, sometimes referred to as
"kitchen campaigning" because of the practice of candidates sitting
in farm kitchens, drinking whatever brew is being served.
The electoral system, until recently,
encouraged voters to maintain a rather cynical attitude to elections. The
province originally had a bicameral Legislature, but in 1893 the two Houses
were combined into one so that each of the fifteen constituencies would have
double representation of a Councilman and an Assemblyman. If a person owned
$325.00 worth of property in a constituency, he could vote for a Councillor and
Assemblyman in that constituency. even though he did not reside there.
Therefore, any voter could have up to thirty votes on election day. This system
was finally changed in 1963; now persons may only vote in the constituency in
which they are resident.
Today, Prince Edward Island is divided into
sixteen double constituencies. The increase took place at the last
redistribution of 1965. There are five constituencies in both Kings and Prince
County, and six in Queen's County, the largest of the counties which is based
upon Charlottetown. Since the province is divided fairly evenly on religious
lines, the parties have often found it convenient to run one Catholic and one
Protestant candidate in each of the constituencies. In some constituencies,
such as Fifth Queens, the religious division appears to be not as important as
it once was. Since 1975 this constituency has been represented by two
Catholics. However, as Jeffrey Simpson pointed out in Discipline of Power (pp.
109-110), a political party disregards the religious split in PEI at its peril.
Consequently, the general practice of running one Catholic and one Protestant
candidate continued in the 1982 election.
Prince Edward Island constituencies are not
really dual constituencies. Rather, each party nominates one candidate for
Councillor and one candidate for Assemblyman. The contest is a single one in
each constituency between the candidates running for the Councillor's seal and
those running for the Assemblyman's seal. In four of the sixteen constituencies
the voters elected one Conservative and one Liberal, however, in an equal
number of constituencies the coattails of one of the candidates were
sufficiently long to help elect the party's other candidate in the same
constituency. Consequently, it is difficult to say whether or not PEI electoral
system hinders or helps ticket-splitting.
The size of the province, both with respect
to population and geography, plus well established family voting patterns, have
hindered the development of third parties. Only one independent has ever been
elected to the Legislature. in 1970, the New Democratic Party entered what
proved to be a temporary period of growth which may have been aided by
disorganization within the Progressive Conservative Party. However, the NDP has
always had little money because of the small union membership on the Island,
and even those trade unionists who do exist do not always support the NDP.1
After the 1978 election, a serious split developed within the NDP over
the question of leadership. During the 1982 campaign David Burke was officially
titled "the interim Leader. The NDP ran three candidates, who together
received six hundred and twenty-nine votes. In one of these constituencies,
Fifth Prince, there were more rejected ballots than there were votes for the
NDP. Obviously, we are looking at a two-party system in Prince Edward Island, a
fact which will likely remain true for many years to come. The National Farmers
Union and the Co-op movement have been strong in PEI, but this form of
"protest" has not carried over into the political arena although Jim
Mayne, a former president of the NFU was elected Leader of the NDP in 1983.
Prior to the 1982 general election both the
Liberals and the Conservatives had undergone a change in leadership. In 1979,
the Liberals were led by Bennett Campbell (the present Minister of Veterans'
Affairs), who had assumed the premiership following the appointment of Alex
Campbell (no relation) to the provincial Bench. Bennett Campbell was elected
Leader of the Party at a convention in December of 1978, but he never called
the legislature into session. There were sixteen Liberal and fifteen
Conservative members, with one vacancy; in effect, a tie, once a Speaker had
been elected. Bennett Campbell was apparently of the opinion that he could not
afford to call a by- election in Alex Campbell's former seat and instead called
a general election in April of 1979, which returned a Conservative majority
Following the death of the federal Minister
of Veterans' Affairs Daniel MacDonald, Bennett Campbell resigned from the
legislature and successfully contested the by-election for the seat in Ottawa.
The Liberal caucus appointed longtime MLA Gilbert Clements as interim Party
Leader until a leadership convention could be organized.
On October 24th, 1981, the Liberals met in
Charlottetown to select the new Leader. Leadership conventions in Prince Edward
Island are not small affairs: indeed, the total number of delegates permitted
at both Liberal and Progressive Conservative conventions totals approximately
1,500 plus an equal number of alternates. As one Liberal quipped to the writer:
"The province is so small and everyone knows everyone else, we do not wish
to see anyone's feelings hurt, consequently, we make sure everyone can
come". David MacDonald a former Cabinet Minister and former MP from Egmont
has put it, a little bit more positively: "Athenian democracy is alive and
well and living in PEI.2 Certainly, the number of delegates at these
PEI conventions is far greater than that found in any of the other Atlantic
provinces and indeed, one would suspect, larger than in any other province save
for Ontario and Quebec.
At the October 1981 convention, the two
candidates were the acting Leader, Gilbert Clements, and Joseph Ghiz, a Harvard
educated, Charlottetown lawyer, who hitherto had been involved in the backrooms
of the Liberal Party, but had never sought elective office. Mr, Ghiz, a
thirty-seven year old Protestant of Portugese descent, had considered running
against Bennett Campbell in 1978 but instead, campaigned actively for Gerard
Mitchell, Bennett Campbell's then opponent. Many observers expected Clements to
be confirmed as Leader, particularly as his performance in the legislature had
been more than adequate; and also because Mr. Ghiz was an unknown quantity.
Events were to prove otherwise. Mr. Ghiz won an overwhelming victory. An
articulate, intelligent person, Joseph Ghiz perhaps won the convention because
of his oratorical skills – certainly they did not hinder him.
In the April 24th, 1978 general election the
Conservatives who had been led by Angus MacLean since 1976 won fifteen seats to
the Liberals' seventeen and improved their popular vote by eight percentage
points. One year later, on April 23rd, 1979, MacLean led the Conservatives to
victory with twenty-one of the thirty-two seats and 53.3% of the popular vote.
Angus MacLean had stated that he would lead the Conservatives in no more than
two elections. True to his word, he announced his retirement in the summer of
1981. On November 7th, 1981, the Progressive Conservatives gathered to select a
new leader and a new premier for the province. The four candidates were Pat
Binns, Barry Clark, Fred Driscoll and James Lee who had also been a candidate
in 1976. All four were members of the MacLean Cabinet. Mr. Lee emerged
victorious defeating Barry Clark, a teacher and Protestant clergyman, on the
third ballot. (Clark's bad luck was to continue as he was the only member of
the Cabinet to lose his seat in 1982, being defeated in Sixth Queens by Joe
Mr. Lee announced, following the convention,
that he would not call an immediate general election in order to obtain his own
mandate. However, by the fall of 1982, he felt secure in office and did indeed
call an election.
The campaign which emerged can only be
referred to as dull, or as Michael Harris of the Globe and Mail reported, 1t
may be all over but the snoring in a campaign that observers here are calling the
dullest in years". (September 25th, 1982) Earlier, a rather prominent
Liberal strategist had privately phrophesied correctly that Lee would win and
"win big because he had managed very quickly to become a second Angus
MacLean". In this respect he was referring to the way in which MacLean had
been able to identify so very closely with the people of the Island,
particularly the rural people, and despite the comments of the Globe and Mail
("he has the charm of a potato"), produce his own form of Island charisma.
There is no doubt that James Lee had learned the art of political leadership
from Angus MacLean. During the campaign, Mr. Lee built on the rural renaissance
which Mr, MacLean had started within the Conservative Party prior to the 1978
Mr. Lee started his bid for re-election with
a promise-free campaign. The Progressive Conservatives were of the opinion that
the electorate, in the midst of a recession which included low prices for
potatoes, did not wish to be bribed with their own money. On the Wednesday
before election day Premier Lee did announce that Premiers Lévesque and
Hatfield had both agreed to begin negotiations with the government of Prince
Edward Island which would result in a 20% drop in residential electricity
rates. PEI rates are the highest in Canada and, as is the case in Nova Scotia,
power rates are a constant political issue. Basically, Premier Lee was
promising that PEI would purchase fifty megawatts of excess electricity from
Hydro Quebec and obtain "wheeling rights" through New Brunswick.
Earlier, New Brunswick had offered to sell electricity from the Point Lepreau
nuclear station to Prince Edward Island, but then Premier MacLean had refused
to purchase power from the Point Lepreau station, stating that Prince Edward
Island would not purchase electricity made from nuclear fission.
Some weeks after the Prince Edward Island
election the chairman of the New Brunswick Power Commission reported privately
that no discussions had taken place with New Brunswick and, indeed, he was quite
flabergasted by the whole concept of power from Quebec going through New
Brunswick to Prince Edward Island. It now appears that the issue may have been
laid to rest, perhaps until the next PEI election.
Liberal Leader Joseph Ghiz offered a wide
ranging programme which included mortgage assistance. free drugs for Senior
Citizens, low interest loans to fisherman, farmers and small businessmen, and
selective energy subsidies. He informed the voters that his promises would cost
only eight million dollars, while Mr. Lee argued that it would cost more like
thirty million to implement the entire Liberal programme. The governing party
was able to turn the issue away from its own performance in office and on to
the promises of the Opposition; indeed, the Opposition's platform became the
major issue. As is usually the case when such events transpire, the governing
party was successful not only in defusing the attack on its own programme, but
also in pointing out the alleged fallacies of the Opposition's proposal. The
style of the two party leaders also differed markedly. Lee ran a quiet,
personal campaign while Ghiz ran what, at least for Prince Edward Island, was a
flamboyant, aggressive campaign based upon his oratorical skills.
The final results saw the Progressive
Conservatives win twenty-two seats, a net gain of one, with the Liberals being
reduced to ten seats. The Conservatives obtained 53.9% of the popular vote.
compared to 45% for the Liberals and 1% for the New Democrats. It was the
Tories' best showing since 1912, when they captured 60% of the popular vote.
The percentage of the electorate voting
included a high of 93.9% in Second Kings, and a low of 68.4% in Fifth Prince.
In total, 78.2% of the electorate voted as compared to 83.8% in 1979 and 86.2%
in 1978. The usual election day shenanigans, including "treating",
(which central Canadian academics and journalists find somewhat repulsive),
continued to take place. It must be remembered that the use of rum on election
day is considered to be a way of life in certain sections of the Maritimes.
This particular practice is not seen, by the receivers at least, as a criminal
offence, or even bribery, but rather as a part of their democratic right. To
them, what has been tradition remains permissible. It would appear that the
only way these rather questionable practices will ever be stopped is when the
rum becomes too expensive. In the meantime one may ask if it is any greater
crime for politicians to bribe electors with rum than it is to bribe them with
bridges, roads, stop and go expressways, super-port developments, oil sand
developments, school cafeterias, etc.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of
elections in PE1 is that in nearly every election since Confederation Islanders
have elected the party which is in power in Ottawa. This is certainly a prudent
practice, particularly when one considers the percentage of the provincial
budget which is passed in one form or another from the revenues of the federal
government to the provincial one; and how greatly the province is dependent
upon federal fiscal transfers. In three PEI elections, those of 1890, 1919, and
1979, the government turned over in Charlottetown prior to similar events
taking place in Ottawa.
The question which arises from the 1982
result is simply this: Are the events of those three general elections to be
repeated some time in the near future? Or, has a new pattern of voting
developed with respect to Prince Edward Island? These questions may only be
answered by subsequent political events.
Perhaps there is a third possibility, one
which may in the long run prove to be far more important than the other two.
Did the electors of Prince Edward Island follow those of Nova Scotia and other
provinces in showing their dislike for the federal Liberal Party by defeating
their provincial counterparts? In other words, are provincial elections being
fought not on the issues and performances of the provincial governments and
opposition parties, but rather upon the performance and personalities of the
federal party leaders? If this is indeed the case, and events in the recent
past in Canada tend to indicate that they are, then we are in danger in this
country of producing a federal political system similar to that of the Federal
Republic of Germany, where elections at the state (Lander) level are mere
plebescites on the performance of the parties and their leaders at the national
level. The tendancy of Canadians to place the opposition in the provincial
capitals and not in the House of Commons is not a completely new phenomena but
it does not auger well for the future of interdependent federalism.
1. A. Brendan Curley, "An Analysis of
the 1976 Progressive Conservative and 1978 Liberal Leadership Conventions in
Prince Edward Island", unpublished B.A. Honours thesis, Acadia University,
2. In an interview with the writer.