An hour or so into election night, the television networks will report the results from Prince Edward Island's four constituencies. Then these results will be forgotten, except on the island, subsumed by the votes from more populous places.
For Islanders, politics is in the blood. They vote in much higher proportions, generally speaking, than Canadians elsewhere. Seventy-four per cent of them voted in the last federal election, compared with the national average of 61.1 per cent. And a whopping 86 per cent of eligible voters went to the polls in the recent provincial election.
Many voters know the candidates, unlike in large suburban ridings. Party affiliation and leadership still count the most in voting decisions, but the personalities and records of the incumbents and their challenges get parsed here more than elsewhere. That should help the three Liberal incumbents in PEI who are known and liked.
There are only about 110,000 Islanders on the federal voting list, about the same number as in Mississauga-Erindale. On a seat-by-population basis, PEI should have one or two seats, not four, but four is in the lasting legacy of the island having that many Senate seats. So four seats it is, and four it shall be.
One belongs to Conservative Fisheries Minister Gail Shea in Egmont. Although personally popular, the minister is running in the teeth of anti-Conservative sentiment in PEI and across Atlantic Canada.
A Corporate Research Associates poll of Atlantic Canada in May showed the Conservatives stuck at about a quarter of the votes – about where the party was in a February survey. In PEI – beware of the very small sample size and therefore large margin of error – the Conservatives have but 20 per cent of the decided votes. (Undecided voters were not counted.)
Accepting future imponderables, and the vagaries of just one poll, Ms. Shea could be in serious trouble. So could other Conservatives in the Atlantic region, where, according to the CRA poll, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is the least popular of the three major national leaders.
Mr. Harper's government is suffering from touching the third rail of federal policy in Atlantic Canada – employment insurance. Seasonal work coupled with EI is woven into the fabric of many Atlantic Canadian communities. Several generations have now grown up with the integration of part-time work and EI. Tightening access to EI in any way has caused political grief for governments as far back as that of Brian Mulroney in the 1980s. Privately, political, academic and business leaders have bemoaned the integration; publicly they must remain silent.
Then there is the nature of political conservatism in Atlantic Canada. Throughout the region, provincial parties still proudly call themselves Progressive Conservative. They don't feel comfortable with the populist Reform Party sentiments in the current federal Conservative Party. Suspicion of government does not play well in a region so dependent on government activity and money.
The Liberals, until recently, were the principal beneficiaries in the region of distaste for the Harper Conservatives. Now, as elsewhere in the country, the wind seems at the back of the NDP. New Democrats still trail the Liberals but have closed the gap.
The CRA polls showed the NDP jumping to 29-per-cent support across the region in May from 14 per cent in February, and to 26 per cent in PEI from 18 per cent. NDP Leader Tom Mulcair's approval rating soared eight points; Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau's slumped by five. Mr. Harper's, low to begin with, slid by two.
Close observers of the PEI political scene expect the Liberals to hold what they have and perhaps win Ms. Shea's Egmont seat. Liberals have incumbents, an organization, a proud history and a provincial government. When political tides start moving, they are as unstoppable as those in the oceans around the island. And the island can produce surprises, as in electing for the first time a Green candidate to the provincial legislature.
It would be very nice to believe that Islanders, like other Canadians, will vote on the basis of the democratic reform changes proposed this week by Mr. Trudeau. Worthy as many of these reforms undoubtedly are, they won't grab people as much as what parties are selling around jobs, taxes and the general state of the regional economy.