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WAYNE YOUNG: Uncharted political waters

A recent poll by MQO Research suggests support for the Liberal Party of P.E.I. has declined 20 points over the last two years, while support for the Greens has risen by 27 points. Support for the PCs has remained comparatively stable.
A recent poll by MQO Research suggests support for the Liberal Party of P.E.I. has declined 20 points over the last two years, while support for the Greens has risen by 27 points. Support for the PCs has remained comparatively stable. - Contributed

Island voters have never enjoyed a real three-way race in a provincial election ... until now

Everyone knows a political opinion poll is simply a snapshot in time – a glimpse into what voters might be thinking between elections.

But quarterly snapshots of voting preferences on P.E.I. over the past year are starting to paint a clearer picture – for the first time ever, three parties have a shot at forming the next government.

Notably, polls suggest the Progressive Conservatives have rebounded under leader James Aylward as the governing Liberals cling to a razor-thin lead in support of decided voters.

And Green Party fortunes continue to rise. So much so that one pollster suggested the Greens would have “a reasonably good chance of winning” were an election called today, and another – reviewing a poll released this week that suggests a tight three-way race – said the election result would be “simply too close to call.”

For a province where voters have elected only Liberal or Conservative majority governments since joining Canada in 1873, these are most certainly uncharted political waters.

Since he made history by winning a seat for the Green Party in 2015, Peter Bevan-Baker has guided the party to new heights, culminating in Hannah Bell’s byelection victory last fall.

Early this week, a poll released by MQO Research suggested the Greens at 29.2 per cent support are now in a virtual tie with the Liberals (32 per cent) and PCs (31.3 per cent).

It comes on the heels of a June poll by Corporate Research Associates that showed Liberals at 34 per cent support, Greens in second at 33 per cent and PCs within striking distance at 26 per cent.

The polls suggest the Greens aren’t going away and with the resurgence of the PC party, Premier Wade MacLauchlan must be having fits as he contemplates a date for the next election. Early this year, speculation was rampant he’d go to the polls in the spring. When he ruled that out, the premier seemed to leave the door open to a summer election. With that door now closed, some speculate he’ll call a fall election.

There’s no pressing need for Islanders to return to the polls right away. The fixed election date is October of 2019. As that would conflict with a federal election, an argument could be made to call it earlier – perhaps next spring or summer.

Of course, the premier wants to call an election when his party has the best chance of winning. Those waters become increasingly murky with polls suggesting a three-way race.

The emergence of the Green Party as a solid third choice – and the possibility of a fourth, if new leader Joe Byrne can kick-start the NDP – sets up a whole new dynamic. Even if the Greens don’t get enough votes to form government, it’s entirely possible the party could be a power-broker in a minority government – a first in Island politics.

If Islanders opt to toss the current first-past-the-post system in favour of proportional representation in an election-night referendum on electoral reform, tight races involving several parties will likely be commonplace in the future.

The winds of political change are blowing in P.E.I., setting the stage for an election – whenever it’s called – that promises to be one of the most interesting in the province’s political history.

- Wayne Young is an instructor in the journalism program at Holland College in Charlottetown.

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