Prince Edward Island’s Progressive Conservative leader was put on the defensive on issues such as health care and climate change but didn’t take the bait in the only televised leaders debate ahead of the April 3 provincial election.
Instead, incumbent Premier Dennis King responded to his opponents’ attacks Monday night by reminding them of his collaborative spirit, and at times, even complimenting them.
“I think I’ve demonstrated over four years that I really don’t care where the good ideas are coming from,” King said to criticism from Liberal Party Leader Sharon Cameron, who accused him of “dumping” his party’s platform late in the campaign.
“I don’t stand here and try to boast that the (Progressive Conservative) plan is the only plan ... there are some wonderful ideas in the other three party platforms,” King added.
Meanwhile, Peter Bevan-Baker – the only Green Party official Opposition leader in the country – was on the attack most of the night, accusing King’s government of being untrustworthy and of failing Islanders on health care.
But he had almost as many criticisms for the Liberal leader, suggesting that many of the Island’s problems are a legacy of not just the Progressive Conservatives but the Liberal party when it was leading the province.
“Let’s remember the health-care system that we are labouring under, that health-care workers are struggling with, was created by the Liberal and Tory governments,” Bevan-Baker said, adding that about 30,000 Islanders are waiting for a family doctor.
“Dennis King has had four years to reverse that. Let’s remember who created the problems in the first place: it’s the old parties.”
Don Desserud, a political science expert based in P.E.I., said the leaders were well behaved and no one spoke over each other, adding that the evening ended with hugs. Desserud said King had a statesmanlike demeanour, while Bevan-Baker seemed to be the debater who thought he had the most to lose.
Bevan-Baker “recognizes that the criticism against him is that he’s not a strong Opposition leader. I think that’s unfair, but that’s how politics works,” Desserud said.
Bevan-Baker may have targeted Cameron often because she is running in the same district as him – New Haven-Rocky Point.
Cameron, meanwhile, focused her criticism against King, who she said got an extra $50 million for health care from the federal government and instead of returning to the province and planning how to spend it, came back “to plan an election.”
Political analysts have said trends show that Greens may lose seats in the election while the Tories may win a bigger majority. At dissolution, the Progressive Conservatives held 15 seats, the Greens had eight and the Liberals held four in the 27-seat legislature.
The person who impressed Desserud most was the New Democratic Party’s Michelle Neill, he said. “She’s the unknown factor. I thought she did a very incredible job. I thought she handled herself very, very well.”
Neill stood out when she addressed residents’ fears that the province’s health-care system was moving slowly into a private model.
“We want to ensure that all public funds that come from the federal and provincial governments that are earmarked for health care, are put right to the front lines to invest in our health-care workers,” Neill said.
On the problems facing the health system, King said, “there isn’t just one magic button that we could push to fix health care.”
Bevan-Baker had some of his most stinging critiques against King during the climate change portion of the debate. The Green leader said King’s government has “failed Islanders” by not calling a public inquiry after post-tropical storm Fiona damaged the province in late September.
He said King did a “dreadful job” of taking care of residents – some of whom were without power for weeks after the storm – adding that severe weather will continue to wreak havoc on the province because of climate change and the Island must become more resilient.
King said reviews are needed following every catastrophic event but stopped short of agreeing to a public inquiry.
“I know throughout since the days of Fiona and our response – there’s been very, very comprehensive work done at the standing committee level. They’ve asked a lot of difficult questions. We’re learning a lot more. We need to learn from all of this. We have committed to doing a review, we will do that. We will learn from it.”