POLITICS

Who you know, not what you know, was once a factor in P.E.I. politics

05/01/2015 01:38 EDT | Updated 05/01/2016 05:12 EDT
The days when getting your road paved in P.E.I. meant voting for the right politician might be gone, but Green Leader Peter Bevan-Baker says political connections still pose an obstacle for third parties trying to make a breakthrough in Monday's election.

Though some historians say voting based on political rewards has waned, Bevan-Baker believes the effects of patronage remain.

"I think you still see fear in some individuals whose jobs are dependent on the public purse. And there are many of them," says the 52-year-old dentist who is running in Kellys Cross-Cumberland, a rural riding southwest of Charlottetown.

"Patronage plays an enormous role, sometimes very overtly and sometimes quite subtly."

Bevan-Baker was also a Green party candidate in Ontario before moving to Prince Edward Island 13 years ago.

Historian Ed MacDonald, who teaches at the University of Prince Edward Island, says the old days of families passing on political affiliation like treasured heirlooms are largely gone.

In the years after Confederation there was widespread use of patronage in Canadian politics as a way of maintaining support, and P.E.I. was little different, he says.

However, the Island's small scale magnified the impact of close personal ties.

"You were expected to look after everybody in your riding. ... And people looked to you to get their road paved, looked to you to ensure their child got a job for the summer, looked to you to ensure electricity was extended to your area," MacDonald said.

But former Liberal premier Robert Ghiz signalled a shift in the 2007 election when he shunned a party candidate who suggested Progressive Conservatives would be out of government positions if the Liberals won.

After winning a majority government, the Liberals didn't repeat the prior practice of replacing seasonal workers based on party loyalty.

Ghiz also introduced Participate in P.E.I., a website where people could apply for jobs with government boards, agencies and commissions.

Still, he faced criticism when Liberals were appointed to a tribunal that oversaw workers compensation appeals and Tories were quietly dropped.

Ian Dowbiggin, also a historian at the University of Prince Edward Island, says many people in the province also believe Ghiz didn't do enough to curb the provincial nominee program, which brought immigrants into the province if they invested in Island companies. In 2009, the auditor general released a report on conflict of interests that were related to the program.

Dowbiggin says the better word for what happens today is cronyism.

"It doesn't filter down to the people on the street, but privileges people in an affluent social class that's close to the government," said Dowbiggin.

Liberal Leader Wade MacLauchlan has promised changes if the party is re-elected that are intended to bolster trust as a result of the fallout from both the immigrant investor program and the party's failed attempt to make P.E.I. the country's Internet gambling regulator.

Tory Leader Rob Lantz started his campaign by making accountability a central plank, promising that all Progressive Conservative candidates would sign a pledge requiring them to uphold "honest and open government dedicated to the common good.''

Dowbiggin says if the Greens or the NDP elect a candidate on Monday, it may reflect disaffection with the past practices of the two leading parties.

"We may have crossed a watershed in the history of the province where I think the tolerance for this kind of cronyism has weakened considerably," he said.