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WAYNE YOUNG: The times they are a changin’

CRA is one many polls which suggest Liberals are losing iron grip on P.E.I. politics
CRA is one many polls which suggest Liberals are losing iron grip on P.E.I. politics - The Guardian

Competitive third parties may be new political reality on P.E.I.

Legendary folk singer Bob Dylan famously sang, ‘The times they are a changing,’ – words that ring especially true in P.E.I. politics these days.

And it’s not all about Liberal backbencher Bush Dumville who left the party last week and dressed down Premier Wade MacLauchlan on his way out.

No, there’s a greater change that should worry both the Liberal and Progressive Conservative brain trusts.

Voting preferences among an increasing number of Islanders appear to be changing.

Since joining Canada in 1873, the vast majority of Island voters marked their X beside a Liberal or Conservative candidate, and one of those parties went on to form government – too often with lopsided majorities.

But the election of two Green Party candidates – one in the 2015 general election and another in a byelection last fall – show that’s starting to change, and opinion polls suggest more and more voters are giving third parties a much closer look.

The quarterly poll by Corporate Research Associates in December suggested the governing Liberals dropped to their lowest level in 13 years, down to 37 per cent support from 45 last summer. The Conservatives had 28 per cent support, and the Greens 25. Coupled with the NDP’s 11 per cent, third parties were the choice of better than one in three decided voters.

A few weeks ago, two other polling firms – MQO and Mainstreet Research – released results of their recent surveys. MQO has the Greens virtually tied with the Conservatives for second place at 28 per cent support, nine behind the Liberals. Mainstreet Research had the Greens leading at 36 per cent, six ahead of the Conservatives and seven up on the Liberals.

Polls – no matter how much or little stock you put in them – are only a snapshot of possible voter preferences during a specific time period. A lot can change before the next provincial election which – depending on who’s speculating – could come as early as this spring or fall, or the spring or summer of 2019.

But whenever it’s held, it will include a referendum on electoral reform. Voters will be asked to choose between the status quo first-past-the-post, which awards a seat to the top vote-getter in each district, and a form of proportional representation, a system that considers each party’s share of the popular vote in awarding seats.

Third parties have long advocated for PR. But even without it, they’re learning how to be competitive. The Greens elected two members under first-past-the post and hope to add to that count in the next election. The NDP aims to improve its fortunes when it elects a new leader in April. No doubt a re-energized NDP would draw some votes away from the Greens, but it would erode support for the old-line parties as well.

In addition to eight Tories and two Greens, the MacLauchlan government will likely face another opposition voice this spring when Dumville returns to the legislature and sits as an independent.

It’s a welcome departure from what, too frequently, has passed for debate after lopsided wins by Liberal or Tory governments.

If third party support continues to trend upwards, and especially if voters embrace PR in the upcoming referendum, those days could be over.

The next election will show if times really are changing on P.E.I.

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

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