The Crowning of Island Political Leaders

Political coronations, where a chosen one ascends to leadership, without the divisiveness or financial costs of a contested convention, can be good or bad for a party, depending on the circumstances.

I have some personal experience with such coronations. In 1993, I was part of a small group that convinced Catherine Callbeck to seek the leadership of the Liberal Party of Prince Edward Island, and I watched her breeze through an uncontested convention that saw her crowned party leader.

At the time, the Liberals were sailing along in the polls. Unlike some political leaders who never know when to quit, the late Premier Joe Ghiz retired from provincial politics still popular and highly respected by Islanders.

A successful business woman and former minister in the liberal government of Premier Alex B. Campbell in the 1970s, Callbeck had a unique cachet, and a proven track record politically, and following an election in which the liberals captured all but one seat, she became the first woman elected premier in Canada.

It was an historic accomplishment, and throughout her relatively short time as premier, Callbeck exhibited integrity and resolve. Her bold attack on the provincial deficit, however, put her out of favor with public sector employees, and the liberals would pay a heavy political price in the ensuing provincial election.

Nevertheless, the coronation of Catherine Callbeck as leader of the Liberal Party was a sound strategic decision at the time, and it assured the party of a third consecutive term in government.

As the wheels began to come off the liberal political bus in 1995, the conservatives faced the challenge of finding a new leader. But rather than crown a chosen one, the Tories found synergy, and a legitimate leadership contest took shape.                                                                                                                                            

I remember watching that tory leadership race from the other side of the political fence. Liberals unblinded by their own partisanship knew the conservatives were coming, and they could hear the hoofbeats.

The incumbent conservative leader, Pat Mella, had performed extraordinarily as a single-person Official Opposition, however the leadership candidates would be Charlottetown businessman Wes MacAleer, former MP Pat Binns, and O’Leary veterinarian Dr. Gary Morgan. It proved an even-tempered, well managed contest, with the bean farmer from Hopefield coming out on top and going on to win the government in 1996, and serve three consecutive terms as premier.

I believe a coronation could have served the Conservative Party well in 1981, at the tail end of Angus MacLean’s premiership. As Islanders will recall, real estate developer Jim Lee succeeded MacLean as party leader, after defeating cabinet colleagues Fred Drsicoll, Pat Binns, and Barry Clark, at a contested convention. Lee of course became premier, possibly one of the most under appreciated in recent Island political history.

But sometimes you wish that history could be reshuffled like a deck of playing cards.

If the provincial conservatives had successfully recruited rising political star at the federal level, David MacDonald, and crowned him leader, the party might have run the table for the next several elections.

Imagine the debates between the dynamic and socially progressive clergyman, MacDonald, and the young Harvard trained lawyer Joe Ghiz, about to take the political stage for the liberals.

But then again, had MacDonald made the jump from Ottawa back to the Island, Ghiz may have stayed away from provincial politics altogether.                                                                                                                                            

Moving to the present day, I believe leadership coronations still haunt and perplex the backroom strategists of our two major political parties.

Premier MacLauchlan walked into his job, without a challenge from inside or outside the Liberal Caucus.

The party establishment flocked to him, viewed him as a kind of savior, capable of breathing new life into the public affairs of the province, and ready to sweep away the scandals and misdeeds of the Robert Ghiz government.

The jury is still out halfway through a term marked by stutter step decision making, broken campaign promises, and a preponderance on command and control government.

It could be that the crowning of King Wade was a strategic mistake for the liberals, and given the conventional three-term limit for governing parties on Prince Edward Island, MacLauchlan could very well suffer the same fate as the Callbeck-Milligan administration when the next provincial election rolls around.

The conservatives seem to be heading for a contested leadership this time around. Their back room, as it is, would prefer to crown Stratford-Kinlock MLA James Aylward, however Rustico-Emerald MLA Brad Trivers refuses to fall in behind Aylward, and is running his own impressive “back to basics” campaign. It would also not surprise me if a dark horse candidate emerged from the political shadows in the coming weeks.

It is both prudent and publicly responsible for the conservatives at this moment to have a genuine contest of competing political visions and personalities, so that party members and all Islanders can evaluate and judge.

Political coronations prevent that.


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