Last January, Dennis King, then a Progressive Conservative leadership candidate, stood in front of hundreds of party faithful and made the pitch that would come to serve as his personal brand.
It was the final debate of the PC leadership contest. King was vying to become the leader of the party. It had been a bruising contest, with King taking criticism from all four other candidates for being too close to party insiders.
But that night, a speech from King drew the heartiest applause from the crowd.
The Tories, he argued, needed to focus on something other than heaping mud on the Wade MacLauchlan-led Liberals.
“I want to change the style of our politics because people are sick and tired of being sick and tired of their politicians,” King said.
“Let’s stand up and give them something. Let’s stand for something instead of fighting everything.”
It was a message that would stay consistent during King’s election campaign in April, a campaign that saw the PCs capture enough seats to form a minority government, the first to hold a legislative session in P.E.I.’s history.
The idea has come to be encapsulated by the word collaboration.
King’s experiment in reaching across the aisle has produced a sea change in P.E.I. politics. As such, the spirit of collaboration has been chosen as the news story of the year by The Guardian’s editorial staff.
“Election campaigns can be notoriously dirty affairs with mud-slinging an all-too common tactic,” said Jocelyne Lloyd, interim managing editor of The Guardian.
“In the P.E.I. provincial election, Dennis King praised other parties’ work and ideas, promised to work with them and gave Islanders a preview of the collegiality that carried through as the Progressive Conservatives formed government. That spirit of collaboration has gained the notice of politics watchers across the country.”
“There was an opportunity for us here to put people at the centre of the decisions and to not just focus on ‘because you’re running for Green, that means you’re my enemy, or Red or Blue. Islanders seem to be very, very tickled with it.”
-Premier Dennis King
Previous News Stories of the Year
- 2018: Tignish and Beach Point fishing tragedies
- 2017: P.E.I. school closures
- 2016: P.E.I.’s decision to extend abortion services
- 2015: Record-breaking winter
- 2014: Robert Ghiz surprise resignation
- 2013: Murder/suicide of mother and child
- 2012: Tory turmoil (a year of controversy for Olive Crane and P.E.I. PC Party)
- 2011: Shooting deaths in Alberta
- 2010: Visit to P.E.I. by Live! With Regis and Kelly
- 2009: Upheaval in education
- 2008: Provincial Nominee Program (PNP) controversy
- 2007: Crisis in agriculture
- 2006: Islanders head West
- 2005: Gas price shocker
- 2004: Collapse of fishery processor Polar Foods
- 2003: Hurricane Juan
- 2002: Lawrence MacAulay resignation from federal cabinet
- 2001: Sept. 11 and its impact on Prince Edward Island
- 2000: Prime Minister gets pie in face
- 1999: Tracadie Cross hearse accident
- 1998: David (Eli) MacEachern winning Olympic gold medal
- 1997: Opening of Confederation Bridge
- 1996: Raising of Irving Whale oil barge
- 1995: Bombing of P.E.I. legislature
- 1994: 7 1/2 per cent public sector wage rollback
- 1993: Catherine Callbeck
Editor’s note: For the years 1993, 1994 and 1995, The Guardian only selected a Newsmaker of the Year. In 1996, to comply with The Canadian Press selection method, The Guardianbegan selecting both a Newsmaker of the Year (usually a person) and a News Story of the Year (usually an event or series of events).
Frustrations about partisanship predated King’s entry into the political arena. The growth of the Green party, under the leadership of Peter Bevan-Baker, provided a popular choice for Islanders wary of the back-and-forth between the traditional red and blue.
In a year-end interview, King said he knew prior to entering the PC leadership race that Islanders were hungry for something different.
“There was an opportunity for us here to put people at the centre of the decisions and to not just focus on ‘because you’re running for Green, that means you’re my enemy, or Red or Blue,’” King said.
“Islanders seem to be very, very tickled with it.”
In concrete terms, collaboration can be broken down to a handful of changes to the mechanics of the legislature. First, standing committees have been amended to include equal representation from all three major parties, ending the practice of control over committees by the governing party. Although these committees have yet to issue comprehensive policy recommendations, this has set the stage for them be highly influential on government decisions.
Second, the role of government house leaders – Sidney MacEwen from the PCs, Hannah Bell from the Greens and Heath MacDonald from the Liberals – has become crucial. The three workhorses have overseen careful negotiations over confidence motions such as December’s capital budget, as well as daily exchanges of information over government and Opposition bills. Opposition parties have received briefings, often involving departmental staff, on government bills long before they are introduced.
Finally, the style of P.E.I. politics has changed due in no small part to a non-binding motion introduced in the spring calling for a ban on heckling.
Interim Liberal Leader Sonny Gallant says the clamp-down on heckling has been an improvement.
“I always thought it could have been a little more civil in there. And it is good to see,” Gallant said.
“I don’t think some of the people appreciated some of the heckling that was going on in there.”
Gallant, however, has been critical of some aspects of collaboration. In an editorial printed in The Guardian on Dec. 12, he called for more involvement of the public in decision-making. He also said debate was shortened on legislation, such as changes to the province’s Adoption Act.
“Some people would try to embarrass the government, and the government would try to hide everything. Now when you’ve got a government and Opposition that both want what’s best for Islanders, you actually get the good work done.”
Bevan-Baker said his caucus has worked closely with government on crafting legislation, often making significant alterations to bills behind the scenes. But the Opposition has also been working to hold the government to account, asking pointed questions in the legislature.
“I think we’ve done that pretty consistently. I know it’s been lost in all of the hugging and the praise,” Bevan-Baker said.
MacEwen said the information sharing between parties has changed the culture of “one-upmanship” previously seen in the Coles building.
“Some people would try to embarrass the government, and the government would try to hide everything,” MacEwen said.
“Now when you’ve got a government and Opposition that both want what’s best for Islanders, you actually get the good work done.”
MacEwen acknowledged concerns have been raised about transparency of negotiations between house leaders. The three have repeatedly declined to make public documentation of each party’s positions during negotiations over confidence motions, such as budgets. These documents are outside of the scope of Freedom of Information requests.
MacEwen also said both Opposition parties have been asking tough questions and holding government accountable.
He believes the “get-it-done” spirit of all parties toward legislation may be helping to chip away at political cynicism.
“I feel like, for years, there was starting to be a very negative perception of politicians,” MacEwen said.
“Hopefully we can continue this trend so that it’s an admirable calling and people want to get involved.”