Prince Edward Island wins a premier with ambition and experience to spare

Wade MacLauchlan: P.E.I.’s optimist-in-chief

Canada’s tiniest province wins a premier with ambition and experience to spare

Andrew Vaughan/CP
Andrew Vaughan/CP

Some years ago, Donald Savoie, the influential scholar of public administration, was playing golf with Wade MacLauchlan, then president of the University of Prince Edward Island. “I said, ‘Wade, you should go into politics. You could be premier of P.E.I. You’d be good at it,’ ” Savoie recalls. “He said, ‘Ah, no, no, that’s not for me, I’m at UPEI, I’ve got work to do there.’ ”

Yes, well, that was then. MacLauchlan, now 60, says he remained steadfast until last fall, when Robert Ghiz announced his intention to resign as premier and the P.E.I. Liberals found themselves in need of a new leader.

“In a very short period of time, I would say in the order of a week, there were many conversations, most of them not initiated by me, which started out with me saying that I thought I could contribute in other ways,” MacLauchlan says. “And then through a process that I can chronicle almost hour-by-hour, I moved toward the point of no return.”

And so now he is the 32nd premier of Prince Edward Island, not merely as an outsider to the practice of professional politics but as a particularly historic figure—becoming both the first openly gay man and the first member of the Order of Canada to become premier.

He announced his intentions last November with most of the Liberal caucus standing behind him, and he was subsequently unopposed to succeed Ghiz. After his acclamation as leader, he was sworn in as premier. (He is not yet a member of the legislature, but a new election could come as early as this spring.) With that, MacLauchlan followed Ontario’s Kathleen Wynne to become Canada’s second openly gay premier. At the convention that elected him leader, he says it was his comments about his partner, Duncan McIntosh, artistic director of the Watermark Theatre in P.E.I. that drew the most enthusiastic response. “People aren’t just ready to kind of go along because it’s 2015 or to be tolerant and liberal and progressive,” he says. “People see this as one of the ways in which I can contribute.”

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His capacity for contribution is intriguing. MacLauchlan, the son of a prominent entrepreneur, was dean of the law school at the University of New Brunswick before serving as president of UPEI from 1999 to 2011.

After leaving that post, he wrote a biography of Alex Campbell, the longest-serving premier of P.E.I.

“He brings to the job, unlike so many politicians of today, a wealth of work experience, a wealth of life experience,” says Savoie. The most recent transition to political leadership from academia—that of Michael Ignatieff’s run with the federal Liberals—might not bode particularly well, but Savoie points to MacLauchlan’s experience in management as an important distinction.

Of his own decision to follow Campbell into politics, MacLauchlan invokes Pierre Trudeau: “One of the essential ingredients in politics is timing.”

In putting himself forward, MacLauchlan said he was volunteering to be the tiny province’s “optimist-in-chief” and says there is a need as well for a “salesman-in-chief,” noting P.E.I.’s current trade deficit. On style, he talks of taking the high road and being consultative and inclusive. “When I got to the end of the Campbell book, I asked myself: So what was it . . . about this guy that was so sustainable? And it was a combination of two things. He listened,” MacLauchlan says, “and he cared.”

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