This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on December 2, 1996
PEI Elects Tory Premier
Few political eras have begun in grander style. Twenty four hours after PRINCE EDWARD ISLAND's Conservatives ousted the Liberals in the Nov. 18 election, workmen lowered the last concrete span of the 13-km-long Confederation Bridge gently into place over the frigid waters of the Northumberland Strait. For the first time since the end of the last ice age, Prince Edward Island has a physical link to the outside world; for the first time in 10 years, the province has a Tory government. Now comes the hard part. New Premier Pat Binns has won the unenviable task of helping the Island adjust to the shocks of continuing federal transfer payment cuts - as well as the yearlong recession expected to follow the completion of the fixed link and the loss of about 2,200 construction jobs. "Prince Edward Island is going to be facing some pretty daunting challenges," says Brian Crowley, an economist at the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies. "The question now is whether and how the province can do enough to boost its own-source revenue as the transfer revenue dries up."
Is Binns up to the task? Voters certainly seemed to think so - his Tories won 18 of the 27 seats in the provincial legislature. For the 48-year-old politician, it was a remarkable vote of confidence on an island where family connections can make or break a political career. Binns is, after all, a "come from away": born in Weyburn, Sask., and raised in Lloydminster, Alta. Even after 18 years on Prince Edward Island, his speech is marked by the drawl and flat inflection of his Prairie roots. But the Island is an accommodating place. "Pat is the kind of politician they go for out here," says Marion Reid, a former Conservative MLA. "He grew up on a farm, he always returns phone calls, he never loses his temper."
Binns, who holds a master's degree in community development from the University of Alberta, became an Islander for love. He arrived in 1970 on a student exchange program - and met Carol MacMillan of Wood Island. They married the next year and returned to Northern Alberta, where Binns spent seven years as a provincial government development officer. In 1978, they returned to Prince Edward Island. But instead of pursuing work in his profession, Binns plunged into politics. That same year, he won a seat in the legislature, and went on to serve in a series of cabinet portfolios in Tory governments. He left provincial politics in 1984 to win the federal riding of Cardigan for Brian Mulroney's Conservatives. Four years later, he was back in Prince Edward Island, having lost his seat because of his support for the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement.
Politician Binns then became Farmer Pat, for eight years tending to a 220-acre plot and building a successful dried-bean business. But last year, local Tories persuaded Binns to run for the party leadership, which he won in May of this year. On Oct. 21, the knock of opportunity came with an election call by new Liberal premier Keith Milligan.
Going into the campaign, the Liberals serenely predicted that they would win a fourth consecutive majority. The economy was humming, largely thanks to the fixed-link project. Between September, 1995, and September, 1996, the Island's employment rate jumped by 3.4 per cent - the fastest rate of increase of any province. But anti-Liberal anger simmered, largely due to the government's rollback of public sector wages and changes to the province's health and education systems. Come voting day, that tide of resentment rolled over the Liberals - bringing Binns to the premier's office.
There is a huge gulf between Binns's brand of conservatism and the scorched-earth variety exemplified by, for example, Alberta's Ralph Klein. "A Prairie conservative leans pretty strongly to a kind of hard-line free enterprise," Binns says. "They don't like government involvement out there. Here, we've lived with high unemployment for as long as we can remember - we're used to a close relationship with government." Binns's spending promises during the campaign underscored that difference: among other things, he vowed to maintain acute-care services in hospitals and preserve small community schools - and pledged $2.5 million towards a new cancer treatment centre.
But critics say that he has painted himself into a tight fiscal corner. Federal transfer payments to the province are slated to drop another $21 million over the next four years. Binns faces drastic decreases in provincial spending to accommodate federal cuts, while finding money to pay for campaign promises. His Liberal opponents have already started calling him a throwback to the big-spending, big-borrowing days of the 1970s and 1980s, out of touch with the harsher fiscal reality of the 1990s. His friends tell it differently. "Pat Binns is in office because the people wanted him there," says Eugene Rossiter, a local Tory lawyer and longtime Binns partisan. "They put him there because his priorities reflect their priorities." Delivering on those priorities, however, may prove to be a difficult matter.
Maclean's December 2, 1996