Gail Shea wasn’t about to be dragged into the thorny issue of Stephen Harper’s involvement (or lack thereof) in first ministers’ conferences as premiers arrived for their annual meeting in Charlottetown this week.
The federal minister of fisheries and oceans was asked by a reporter why the prime minister has historically refused to meet collectively with the first ministers.
“You’ll have to ask the prime minister, I’m not at liberty to answer that…”
It was a measured response from a politician who’s been part of Harper’s inner circle since first being elected as MP for Egmont in western P.E.I. six years ago.
Before that, Shea was a popular provincial cabinet minister. After losing her seat in 2007, she jumped to federal politics and in the 2008 election, she broke a 28-year Liberal stranglehold on the riding. As the Island’s lone Tory MP, she was rewarded with the fisheries and oceans portfolio. She was re-elected in 2011 – this time with a 4,400 vote majority – and served as National Revenue minister before being reassigned to fisheries in 2013.
Although the next federal election is more than a year away it’s already generating plenty of interest, particularly in Egmont where the first battle is shaping up for this November – the race to secure the Liberal nomination.
Clearly, Shea is in for a lot tougher battle this time around. For starters, Harper and all Conservative candidates will be facing not only the official Opposition NDP but also a rejuvenated Liberal party under Justin Trudeau. No more Ignatieffs or Dions, former Liberal leaders effectively sunk by Tory attack ads in the last two federal elections. Those same attacks haven’t been working on Trudeau.
Under his leadership the Liberals – relegated to Third Party status and near extinction after the last election – now enjoy a seven-point lead over the Tories and a whopping 14 points over the NDP in recent opinion polls.
There’s little doubt the new leader be a factor in the next election. You can bet in tight ridings where Liberal candidates are seen to have a shot, Trudeau will be brought in to bolster the local candidate. Egmont may well be one of those ridings. With the other three Island ridings likely to remain red, look for Trudeau to be making more than a few campaign stops in western P.E.I.
In addition, the Liberals will be fielding a far more formidable opponent to run against Shea this time around. Two men – educator Gilles Arsenault and businessman Robert Gallant – have already declared. There’s likely to be more.
Perhaps the timing is right for former provincial cabinet minister Robert Morrissey. In 2008, he caused quite a stir when he withdrew his name as the nominated Liberal candidate. He said it was because of uncertainty over an election date and because he wanted to pursue new opportunities in the private sector. And in Summerside a popular city councillor, Tina Mundy, has announced she won’t run in this fall’s municipal election. That’s led to speculation that she’ll throw her hat into the ring for the Liberal nomination. The eventual winner will face a seasoned and formidable opponent in Gail Shea who knows the riding and its people well. She’s a proven campaigner who once took a pie in the face from an activist protesting the seal hunt. Shea wiped the pie from her face and continued with her speech.
And after the Tories were roundly criticized for controversial EI reforms, she announced the Island would be divided into two economic regions for calculating EI eligibility and benefits. The move was an improvement for rural Islanders drawing EI – including everyone in her own Egmont riding – but at least some in each of the other three Liberal ridings that fall in the capital region won’t fare as well under the new designation.
So Shea will be far from a push-over in the next election, but the resurgent Liberals won’t make it easy for her to keep her job in Ottawa.
There’s no doubt in my mind that one of the main Island battlefields in the next federal election will be in Egmont, starting with the Liberal nominating convention in November. That will set the stage for the main battle which will come as early as next October and it should be a dandy.
Wayne Young is an instructor in the journalism program at Holland College in Charlottetown.