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P.E.I. NDP convention grapples with disappointing election results, but keeps focus on the issues

Moderator Lori MacKay oversees a vote of Island New Democrats on a resolution during the P.E.I. NDP convention on Saturday in Summerside.
Stu Neatby/THE GUARDIAN
Moderator Lori MacKay oversees a vote of Island New Democrats on a resolution during the P.E.I. NDP convention on Saturday in Summerside. Stu Neatby/THE GUARDIAN - Stu Neatby

Island New Democrats kept a focus on issues of progressive social policy during the party’s annual convention on Saturday, voting against a leadership challenge for leader Joe Byrne.

The vast majority of members opted against having a party leadership convention within six months. This means Joe Byrne will remain the party’s leader.

Close to 40 members gathered for the party’s yearly convention at the Credit Union Place in Summerside on Saturday.

The party has seen its share of the provincial vote drop in recent elections. The party’s vote share dropped from 11 per cent in 2015 to 3 per cent in the 2019 provincial election. The party did not elect any candidates, although NDP candidate Herb Dickieson was a competitive challenger in the district of O’Leary-Inverness. Dickieson lost the election by 204 votes to Liberal Robert Henderson.

“I’m not going to sugar-coat the results – it’s disappointing,” Byrne said in a speech to members.

But Byrne said the party’s focus on policies and ideas has been a silver lining. He said other parties have “poached” ideas from the P.E.I. NDP platform.

The clearest example of this has been the ongoing focus on establishing a medical faculty at UPEI, in order to address the shortage of family physicians. Over 15,000 Islanders lack access to a family doctor.

“It’s something that has really caught on,” Herb Dickieson said of the idea.

Dickieson said a number of candidates from different parties have publicly supported a local medical faculty, including some current Liberal MPs. Charlottetown and Summerside city councils have also voted in favour of resolutions supporting the idea.

"We need all kinds of support in the healthcare system,” Dickieson said.

"It really kills the rural communities, especially. If they don't have that medical service, they lose their ERs. Their clinics fall into jeopardy and people start moving away for medical services."

Dickieson said he would like to see Premier Dennis King personally take up the issue.

In his speech, Byrne said the NDP is the only political party that focuses on social inequities that he says are inherent in free market capitalism.

“I am so tired of this system where we continue to socialize the costs and privatize the benefits,” Byrne said, who added he was a socialist.

Byrne also criticized the province’s reliance on private developers in the construction of affordable housing. He also said wages earned by P.E.I. workers are often far too low.

Byrne did not focus his comments directly on the Green party of Prince Edward Island, which has likely been the recipient of waning support for the NDP. But he echoed progressive voices in the US like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who argue the environmental movement should be focused on the parallel crisis of mounting social inequality.

"If we continue to pitch any kind of environmental resolution without addressing the inequalities built into our economic system, we will fail miserably,” Byrne said.

The party’s financial report indicated the P.E.I. NDP spent a total of $68,759 during the last provincial election. The party raised close to $60,000, a sum that including a $10,000 reduction in the salary of leader Joe Byrne.

Resolutions passed by members focused on a variety of issues. The party voted in favour of lowering the voting age to 16, of more investment in electric-powered transit vehicles and of requiring consultation with indigenous people for all government planning and decision-making.

Resolutions focused on temporary foreign workers drew the most focus. Members voted in support of resolutions that would require more oversight of temporary foreign worker recruiters as well as inspection of housing standards for these migrant workers. The party also voted in support of providing health coverage for TFWs. Health coverage for migrant workers on P.E.I. varies between programs and some workers could have no coverage at all.

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