The P.E.I. Liberals do not need a rebuild.
This was the message interim Liberal leader Sonny Gallant delivered to almost 60 members during the party’s annual general meeting on Saturday. The AGM is the first since the Liberals were reduced from government to third party status in the spring’s provincial election.
Gallant made the pitch that what the party needed was not a departure from previous policy, but instead a renewed focus on engagement with the party’s grassroots. Gallant also took issue with using the word ‘rebuild’ to describe the party’s efforts.
“I simply disagree. To me, the term rebuilding implies that we were built wrong, or unsuccessful and of no benefit to anyone,” Gallant said.
"In my mind our party does not need to rebuild. We need to build new. We need to ensure that our grassroots members are not just heard but are listened to.”
Gallant listed a number of accomplishments the party had in its three terms in power, including recent balanced or surplus budgets in the midst of increased spending on services like healthcare. He said the party needed to improve its data operations and focus on reaching younger voters.
The Liberals are poised to begin what is likely to be a competitive leadership race in the new year. Earlier this fall, Gallant became the interim leader after MLA Robert Mitchell announced he would step down to run for position of party leader.
Some party members have suggested new MLA Gord McNeilly is considering a leadership run as well. But when asked if he was considering this on Saturday, McNeilly declined to comment.
But McNeilly echoed Gallant’s comments about the need to re-engage with party members.
"I think we have to get back to listening," McNeilly said.
"I want to provide people with an excitement about politics, an excitement about this system. I think the Liberal party - we can get there and we can engage people."
McNeilly said he was attracted to the party by the governing record of the Liberals and by the improvements he has seen in P.E.I. over the last ten years.
"The things that came in play have shot us to the top of many different categories all across our country. And that cannot be ignored," McNeilly said.
Former finance minister Heath MacDonald also did not rule out the possibility of a run for the party’s leadership.
“If we can put a good team together, and there's a lot of interest, then I'll consider it,” MacDonald said.
“But it's got to be about everybody, it can't be about one person. Those days are long gone.”
A leadership race could offer renewed energy for the Liberals. A Progressive Conservative leadership race months before the last election provided a much-needed boost for that party’s grassroots and helped catapult the party to its minority government position.
MacDonald said the timing of a leadership contest would be key.
"People are changing their minds regularly on politics now. Populism plays a significant role in what's happening right around the world," MacDonald said.
"I think we have to pay attention to those types of things."
Brianna O’Connor, the 19-year old president of the Young Liberals of P.E.I. said many younger voters shied away from the Liberals in the last election partly because they saw an alternative to traditional parties in the Greens. She said focusing more on environmental concerns could attract younger voters.
"We definitely need to show more of an environmental plan,” she said.
“I think that's a big concern on the Island.”