CHARLOTTETOWN - Prince Edward Island voters head to the polls Monday, capping a four-week provincial election that saw allegations surrounding a defunct immigration program rattle what was an otherwise listless campaign.
About a week after the legislature dissolved, Premier Robert Ghiz quickly found his Liberal government the subject of criticism after three former employees of the province's immigration nominee program alleged the initiative was marred by bribery.
One worker said she saw senior provincial officials accept cash that she believes was intended to fast-track immigration applications from China.
Ghiz dismissed the claims as "over the top" accusations made by "disgruntled employees." But the allegations have been forwarded to the Canada Border Services Agency and the RCMP, and the Mounties are considering whether to proceed with an investigation into the immigration program, which was shut down in 2008.
The Liberal party also released two emails one of the employees sent to Innovation Minister Allan Campbell in an apparent effort to undermine her credibility. In one of the emails, the employee said she would go to the Globe and Mail and federal Immigration Minister Jason Kenney if she did not get another job with the government.
Ghiz, Campbell and party officials say they don't know who provided the emails to the Liberals. But the province's privacy commissioner is investigating.
"It certainly set the Liberals off their message track and threw them a bit of a curve," said Peter McKenna, a political scientist at the University of Prince Edward Island.
But while the controversy provided days of fodder for the Opposition Conservatives, McKenna said he believes it didn't gain much traction for them because much of the public is tired of the issue.
National news coverage of the allegations, including the Globe and Mail story that first brought them to light, may have worked against the Tories, he added.
"Islanders are pretty independent and don't take kindly to outside interference," McKenna said.
"In some ways, the front page article by the Globe and Mail may very well have hurt the Conservatives as opposed to helping them. ... People kind of saw that as outside and unwanted interference in the campaign."
On the last day of campaigning, Ghiz described the entire affair as a "blip."
"At the end of the day, I'm going to call it rather disappointing that there were some people wanting to play some games during a provincial election campaign," he said Saturday.
"But I'm sure that will all be figured out in the long run."
Both Ghiz and Tory Leader Olive Crane did not campaign Sunday, as is the custom in P.E.I.
Crane reiterated that the immigration program was a major issue for her party, as is health care and jobs, as she campaigned door-to-door in her rural district of Morell-Mermaid.
She said she felt she ran a strong campaign, despite polls that suggest she has a steep hill to climb to unseat Ghiz.
"The campaign continues to go exactly as we expected," she said. "It's going to be an election decided district by district, vote-by-vote."
The Conservatives came into the election holding just two of the legislature's 27 seats. Crane is the only Tory incumbent running again.
Ghiz is seeking a second term in power. His Liberals held 24 seats at dissolution. There was one vacancy.
Both the Liberals and Conservatives waited until the last week to deliver full policy platforms, neither of which stray too far from the beaten path of promises to improve health care and education.
The Liberal platform includes boosting access to post-secondary education, recruitment of doctors and nurses, and efforts to find new markets for Island exports. The party estimates its promises would cost about $25 million annually.
The Conservatives are promising whistleblower legislation, cash for university graduates who stay to work on the Island, and a two per cent cut in the provincial sales tax. They say their platform would cost about $60 million per year.
McKenna said the biggest factor determining the outcome Monday may not be an issue or a promise at all — it may simply be tradition working in favour of the Liberals.
"You had a government which had just been in power for one term," he said.
"Historically over the last 75 years, almost inevitably that government is re-elected for a second and sometimes a third term," he said, adding that may be "the most decisive factor in the 2011 election."
There are three other parties also seeking votes, though none of them are running full slates.
The Green party is fielding 22 candidates. Much of their platform centres on the elimination of pesticide use on Island farms.
The New Democrats have promised greater access to health care. They have 14 names on the ballots.
The newly formed Island party is running 12 candidates. They are offering to trade P.E.I. potatoes for Cuban doctors.
Candidate Jason MacGregor said many Island farmers have excess spuds that are plowed under every year, so he'd like to strike a deal with Cuba that would see the province send potatoes in exchange for doctors.