This is the third in a series of profiles of P.E.I. provincial party leaders this week, heading into advance polls that start March 25. Regular voting day is April 3.
When Progressive Conservative Leader Dennis King looks back at who he was during the 2019 election campaign, with his party on the eve of forming a minority government on Prince Edward Island, he can’t recognize himself.
Waiting for him on the other side of that election were four of the most tumultuous years the world had ever seen.
“We’d been through so much,” he told CBC News this week.
“That was probably a rather naive person getting into government with some ideas to change how we were going to operate government, without knowing what’s on the horizon.”
On the horizon? Global issues that didn’t just send ripples to P.E.I.; they generated tidal waves.
My ultimate goal, and my only concern, is to try and move this province forward.— Dennis King
Just a few: A pandemic and a health-care system in crisis; worldwide economic collapse and record inflation; the Russian invasion of Ukraine inciting trade disruption; rising levels of homelessness and poverty; social unrest and anti-racism protests; the closure of the U.S. border to P.E.I. potatoes; two calamitous tropical storms; and rampant environmental destruction.
“No government in history has operated under the intense pressures that we have, and faced the challenges that we’ve had,” King said. “I think we’ve done a great job in managing the province.”
Who is Dennis King?
While he was a first-time party leader and premier in 2019, King had already spent many years in the political realm.
He hails from Georgetown and was a journalist for the Eastern Graphic, Island Farmer and Atlantic Fish Farming. He later joined the provincial government in a communications role, and made the leap to become the director of communications under then-premier Pat Binns.
King then worked for the Mi’kmaq Confederacy and P.E.I. Seafood Processors Association. Before long he was launching his own communications business and working with Atlantic Canadian public relations firm M5.
Before joining the PC leadership race, he spent time as a performer, calling himself a storyteller and comedian. (When he became leader, tweets from his time as a comedian were criticized for “misogynistic language.” King said they were “obviously in poor taste” and apologized.)
Dawn of ‘a new era’
In April 2019, he led the Progressive Conservatives to power for the first time since 2007 — taking down the Wade MacLauchlan-led Liberals and ushering a minority government into the legislature.
“Welcome to a new era in Island politics,” King said on the night of his victory.
He promised to do politics differently, with more collaboration and less heckling. He prioritized camaraderie among all members in what was once described as a “nice-off.”
The day after the election, King and Green Leader Peter Bevan-Baker hugged it out during a chance meeting at CBC.
ICYMI: In a candid moment yesterday, Dennis King and Peter Bevan-Baker hugged it out — and chatted about 🏒 and ☕️ <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/pei?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#pei</a> <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/peipoli?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#peipoli</a> <a href=”https://t.co/AF7CZUX3B1″>pic.twitter.com/AF7CZUX3B1</a>
On the first day of debate in the legislature, all parties supported a motion to end the practice of heckling.
Many Islanders were enamoured by the idea of a more virtuous political era, and there was talk of a little Camelot on Canada’s East Coast.
King went on to say the “greatest gift I’ve been given as premier is to work within a minority system… because it gives you [the] opportunity to have broader viewpoints, [and] make better legislation and better decisions for the people you serve.”
So what happened next?
The ‘new era’ in practice
Heckling and adversarial politics returned to the legislature, and opposition parties increasingly took aim at the PCs rather than be perceived as collaborators.
Soon after, global crisis after crisis left the provincial government in “just stay afloat” mode for much of the last four years.
Then in the fall of 2020, PC Zack Bell was elected in a byelection that gave King a slim majority and the party the votes needed to pass legislation on their own.
The Greens will tell you the collaboration officially ended then. King says otherwise.
“We’ve always been able to be bridge builders. We’ve consulted broadly with the opposition parties and I think delivered good government in the process,” he said.
“We haven’t changed how the committees work, we haven’t changed how we ask questions from our backbench without [cabinet ministers] knowing what they are. I don’t think we’ve changed at all. I think as we’ve gotten closer to an election, which often happens, some of the parties retreat to different positions and take different views.”
So far in the campaign, his party has presented a treasure trove of health-care promises — leading to questions about why King’s government hadn’t managed to deliver on those areas while they were in power.
King said the PCs didn’t have a fair crack at change given everything that was happening globally. He wishes they could have done more.
“Part of the reason I’m reoffering is because I don’t feel we’ve been given a full runway to do some of these things that we’ve wanted to do,” he said.
“We have moved the dial on a number of these issues, but I have to critique myself and say that we haven’t gone as far as I would have hoped, obviously.”
By the end of the four years, the PCs fulfilled 45 per cent of the promises it made going into the 2019 election, with another 16 per cent of their promises completed in part. That accounts for a roughly a 60 per cent completion rate. One of their highest priorities had been to replace the Hillsborough Hospital. That, of course, didn’t happen.
Island Morning17:00Leader one-on-one: Dennis King
Of fixed dates and audio tapes
The King PCs are going into the 2023 election with a full slate of candidates, the only party to do so other than the NDP.
The month-long campaign hasn’t been without turbulence. King caught flack for not sticking to the legislated fixed election date of Oct. 2, but he’s said time and time again that elections come every four years on P.E.I.
“It shouldn’t be a shock to anybody in Prince Edward Island that four years after the last election… we’re having one,” King said. “This is eighth election of the last 11 that we’ve had in the spring, so this is when you have elections. This is when people gather for elections.”
This week brought more controversy.
King went on the defensive on protecting transgender rights after audio was released of him saying “you don’t gotta drive everything down everybody’s throat.” He later apologized, saying: “I should have more forcefully stood up for the transgender community and I apologize unreservedly to those who are rightly offended by my lack of action.”
The episode led Pride P.E.I. to declare it no longer wants political leaders to participate in the Island’s annual Pride parade, calling on all politicians to provide “real meaningful action” after voting day if they want to march this summer.
Action, on that front and others, is what King promises for the future if he’s re-elected. He’s also promised to work with every member elected, regardless of political stripe.
“Probably the greatest skill I have on the job is that I’m a good listener. I take good advice and try and put it into policy,” King said.
“My ultimate goal, and my only concern, is to try and move this province forward and to help the people who live here to make this the best place to live, work and raise a family. That’s what I’ll do.”