If the Conservative Party of Prince Edward Island was to solicit my expert advice on finding a new leader, about as unlikely an event as Donald Trump paying Barack Obama a compliment, I would make the following recommendations.
First and foremost, I would urge the Tories to find another populist, a person who lives and breathes the Island, someone who connects viscerally with the people of the province, in both rural and urban communities, and across party lines. Populist political leaders are hard to find, and sometimes prospective candidates don’t know themselves how special they are.
In the Island conservative tradition, J. Angus MacLean was a populist, as was his disciple Patrick Binns. Both projected broad appeal with the electorate and possessed the personal attributes needed to draw a crowd, and deliver an authentic, unadorned political message.
I also would urge the party to look for a leader who rings with authenticity. Islanders don’t want pretense. They admire intelligence and accomplishment, but they don’t like being lectured to, or talked down to, by their politicians.
Boldness of vision, and independence of mind and spirit are also essential qualities. In remaking the Island conservative party as a relevant political force for the times we are living in, the new leader must be willing to think and act outside the existing partisan political box, and embrace bold, innovative solutions.
Tired old conventional politics have had their day, as demonstrated by Green Leader Peter Bevan-Baker, the most popular politician in Prince Edward Island.
To be fair, there is talent on the present Opposition Conservative bench, and two good people have declared as leadership candidates, Rustico-Emerald MLA Brad Trivers and Stratford-Kinlock MLA James Aylward. The obvious choice of the back room, Aylward has the tacit but half-hearted support of several of his colleagues.
But two other impressive members of the conservative caucus are not in the race.
Morell-Mermaid MLA Sydney MacEwen decided not to seek the leadership of his party at this juncture for personal reasons, understandable though regrettable as that decision must be to the party rank and file.
But the absence of Belfast-Murray River MLA Darlene Compton from the leadership race does surprise me. Compton has shown interest in the job before. She has intelligence, integrity, is an authentic Island voice, and certainly represented her rural community passionately and effectively during last winter’s school review debacle.
Why is she not in the leadership picture this time?
I hate to say it, but her party seems to have a continuing problem with women. I have been told that Compton explored a leadership run this time but was rebuffed because of her gender. Oh my. Not again. Islanders will remember the disgraceful treatment of former leader Olive Crane by the same old boys back room. Someone needs to tell the party, perhaps interim president Margaret Ann Walsh, that such regressive, discriminatory politics can only mire the conservatives in the past.
Surveying the current field of candidates, and with the greatest respect to James Aylward and Brad Trivers, I believe the Conservatives are very much up the proverbial creek without a paddle, or to express it more pointedly, they are heading towards a leadership convention without a candidate who can win the next provincial election.
Unwisely, the conservatives are playing the safe game, assuming it’s their time, that after three terms the liberals will be tossed out, and it really doesn’t matter how strong the new conservative leader is. But on our new political landscape, the safe game is also a fool’s game.
We are living in an age of leadership politics, and Prince Edward Island effectively is now a four-party political system. Wade MacLauchlan may yet emulate Lazarus. NDP leader Mike Redmond should never be counted out, and in the forthcoming election, Green leader Peter Bevan-Baker and his party will probably make significant gains.
The Greens could possibly re-elect the liberals, if the conservatives fail to put forward a genuine change agent as their leader.
In the waning days of their candidate search, it is my hope that an authentic populist, a progressive conservative open to reform, an Islander able to talk to Islanders in their own language, will yet emerge on the leadership scene.
Without that kind of leadership, the conservatives are re-punching their ticket to another four years in the political wilderness.