When the Island, and indeed Canada, had two political parties vying for office, elections were much simpler. Whoever got the most votes had a majority and won. But with the addition of third and fourth parties to the race it became possible to win without the support of the majority of voters.
Premier Wade MacLauchlan plans to release a white paper on democratic renewal as part of a plan to strengthen the role of the legislature and the electoral process. That review should also examine the number of MLAs and the boundaries of the provincial ridings.
Representation by population is an inherent element in a representative democracy, but like everything else in life, there are exceptions to the rules.
Federally, P.E.I. is a classic exception to that basic rule. There are single ridings in major cities across Canada that have nearly as many, or more, voters in them as there are on the entire Island. This is a result of the deal made when the Island became part of Canada. At one time, when P.E.I. had 2.5 per cent of the Canadian population, the Island had six MPs. Now with less than a half a per cent of the population the Island is down to four MPs, but, only because of constitutional guarantees. The only places in Canada with fewer people per riding are; Yukon, Nunavut and Labrador. In the rest of Atlantic Canada the ridings average about 80,000 people.
The federal electoral boundaries commission makes an effort to evenly distribute the number of people in each of the Island’s federal ridings, the result is the ridings each have between 34,500 and 36,000 people. When looking at provincial electoral reform, Premier MacLauchlan might bear this in mind.
During the last election campaign, NDP leader Mike Redmond suggested the Island has too many MLAs and they cost too much. Like a lot of populist ideas, his proposition seemed to be based more on emotion than on reason.
If Mr. MacLauchlan is going to strengthen the legislature there has to be enough MLAs to do the work. It’s doubtful reducing the size would necessarily be beneficial.
If the Premier were to use the four federal ridings as a template, he could perhaps get a certain symmetry with say, seven MLAs per federal riding. This would allow for provincial ridings with roughly 5,000 people each, which could vary, plus or minus 1,500. This isn’t a big change, there are now seven MLAs in both the Egmont and Cardigan ridings, eight in Malpeque and five in Charlottetown.
But there are districts that seem illogical. Tyne Valley-Linkletter, Tracadie-Hillsborough Park, Morell-Mermaid and Vernon River-Stratford. All of these ridings have large rural areas with large suburban populations that are used to beef up the district numbers. The people of Mermaid are closer to Stratford than Morell. Linkletter, St. Eleanor’s and Sherbrooke are suburbs of Summerside and all four communities could easily be divided into three provincial ridings. Hillsborough Park, now in Tracadie-Hillsborough Park should be part of a Charlottetown riding.
The suburban parts of these ridings have little in common with the rural areas. It should be possible to join the suburban elements, around Summerside and Charlottetown, in a way that reflects their common interests and realign the rural areas into more cohesive districts without dramatically upsetting the existing rural-urban split.
As to the total number of seats in the legislature, this should be determined before redistribution takes place. If the federal data is used to evenly distribute the provincial seats, whether it be six, seven or eight per federal riding it doesn’t make a lot of difference. The Island has had 32 MLAs in the recent past, but a 24-seat legislature seems a little skimpy.
(More on electoral systems in another column.)
- Alan Holman is a freelance journalist living in Charlottetown. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org