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Opinion Why the Prince Edward Island Green Party failed to blossom

Peter McKenna is professor and chair of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island in Charlottetown.

As people here would say, it was a “quiet” campaign on Prince Edward Island – even a boring one, at times. Other than Liberal Premier Wade MacLauchlan’s barb-slinging against PEI Green Party Leader Peter Bevan-Baker on the campaign’s first day, there was nary a negative word or attack ad to be heard. The unusual Easter break and the tragic accidental death of top-flight Green candidate Josh Underhay only silenced the hustings even more.

But there was buzz – fuelled by consistent polling predictions – that Prince Edward Island was set to usher in Canada’s first Green provincial government.

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Well, so much for that. On Tuesday night, voters delivered a minority government led by one of the two traditional parties – this time the Progressive Conservatives, which won 12 districts under the leadership of the little-known Dennis King. The PEI Greens triumphed in eight electoral districts, a fourfold gain, with the governing Liberals reduced to six seats, but the ultimate result – another reaffirmation for the old guard – must be a bitter disappointment for Mr. Bevan-Baker.

Truly, despite leading in the polls provincially for well over two years, a Green government was never really in the cards in 2019. The Greens’ problem wasn’t policy: The parties’ invisible platforms and the tepid debates simply didn’t matter much to Islanders. The problem was that in an election about change – there was an insatiable desire among the electorate for something different, anything but “politics as usual” – that hunger failed to find a vehicle in Mr. Bevan-Baker.

The ballot question – whether the Island’s economic success under Mr. MacLauchlan was enough – was answered with a resounding no. In fact, Mr. MacLauchlan even lost his own seat, after having just secured it in 2015, leaving a proud and hugely successful Islander who began his tenure as Premier with such promise with a tattered political record.

But the vote became framed with another ballot question layered on top: Can voters find sufficient change in a Bevan-Baker-led Green government?

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Green Party Leader Peter Bevan-Baker, left, arrives with his wife Ann to greet supporters in Charlottetown, PEI on April 23, 2019.

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

In that calculus, voters showed how powerful the allure of familiarity remains. The old way of doing things – that is, putting their trust in the two traditional political parties here – is evidently still hanging on in PEI. Given its long-standing traditional political culture and the entrenchment of a tight two-party system, it was always going to be a huge challenge for even Mr. Bevan-Baker.

So what now, for the Greens?

It’s difficult to imagine the Greens and the Liberals cobbling together a stable coalition government, as if out of the proportional representation playbook (a referendum on which, ironically, narrowly failed for the third time on Tuesday). But that probably won’t stop the wily Liberals from trying.

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But it’s also difficult to argue convincingly that the PEI Green Party’s performance has any broader political meaning in the country. The appeal of the Green Party on PEI is essentially local and all about Peter Bevan-Baker. The friendly rural dentist has performed well in the provincial legislature, shown himself to be in command of the various policy files and is widely viewed as very likeable. Most importantly, he has connected personally with Island voters, and they obviously hold him in high regard. They also see him as honest, well-intentioned and utterly incapable of engaging in corruptible practices. Even so, the citizens of PEI were not quite ready to break with the past and give Mr. Bevan-Baker the keys to the premier’s fifth-floor office in the Shaw Building.

Still, this result isn’t all doom and gloom; it gives him a position of significant authority in the provincial legislature, and he will need to be taken very seriously. He will undoubtedly look upon this state of affairs as an opportunity to strengthen his party’s electoral chances at the next election. Two or three more years of political cultivation in opposition might just let the Greens’ electoral flower bloom.

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