POLITICS

Liberal bid to remake image at centre of P.E.I. election campaign

05/03/2015 03:00 EDT | Updated 05/03/2016 05:12 EDT
With an untested leader at the helm for only two months, Prince Edward Island's Liberal party has done its best during a four-week provincial election campaign to remake its image after eight years in power.

The election results on Monday night will show if they have succeeded after Robert Ghiz announced he would step down as Liberal premier in November.

Wade MacLauchlan, the former University of Prince Edward Island president who replaced Ghiz in February, moved quickly to introduce conflict-of-interest reforms aimed at improving government transparency and accountability, saying the province needed to restore public confidence and trust.

A three-year RCMP investigation into allegations of fraud involving an immigrant investor program was closed in January with no charges laid.

MacLauchlan has also asked the province's auditor general to examine the conduct of current and former elected officials and staff in an Internet gaming plan that was scrapped in February 2012.

"The Liberals realize that the last four years have not been happy ones for them," says Don Desserud, a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island. "The public is upset ... with the scandals and suggestions of scandal."

Desserud says the Progressive Conservatives, led by former Charlottetown city councillor Rob Lantz, tried to capitalize on the accountability issue early in the campaign but have failed to keep the pressure on.

"The Conservatives have been somewhat tepid in their attacks," he says. "They're too concerned about being negative and generating a backlash."

Like MacLauchlan, Lantz is a political rookie at the provincial level. He, too, was chosen to lead his party in February.

So neither man has much experience or political baggage, though Lantz has taken to referring to the Liberal regime as the "Ghiz-MacLauchlan government."

However, Desserud says MacLauchlan's deep family roots on the Island and his tenure as a university president gave him a positive profile across the province.

"He has a lot of experience in that respect," he says.

As for NDP Leader Mike Redmond and Green Leader Peter Bevan-Baker, both have been given credit for running solid campaigns and performing well during two televised leaders debates.

But Island voters have yet to warm to third parties, says Desserud. In the history of Island politics, only one New Democrat has been elected to the legislature. That was in 1996 and for one term.

"I don't see the stars lining up under our rather brutal first-past-the-post system, which is so cruel to third parties," he says.

Don Mills, president of Halifax-based market research firm Corporate Research Associates, says the New Democrats and Greens have a long way to go before they can challenge the Liberals and Tories.

"The NDP are in the early stages of developing credibility," he says.

As for the somewhat tarnished Liberal brand, Mills says it's important to remember that the Tory brand has been hurt by political infighting. The party's former leader, Olive Crane, was forced to resign in late 2012 and was ousted from caucus in October 2013.

"They have been such a wreck for so long," says Mills.

The Liberals are seeking their third straight majority government. When the legislature was dissolved for the election, the Liberals held 20 seats, the Tories had three seats, there was one Independent and three seats were vacant.