Two premiers, two plebiscites, and two very different ideas
Premier Wade MacLauchlan
Nearly 30 years ago then-Premier Joe Ghiz announced Islanders would settle a long-standing and contentious debate whether or not to build a ‘fixed link’ to the mainland.
In a plebiscite Jan. 18, 1988, three out of five Islanders said Yes. Nine years and nearly $1 billion later, the Confederation Bridge was complete.
But Ghiz never took a public stand. It was only after he died in 1996 that a local journalist revealed the premier told him he had voted No.
Fast-forward to 2016 and, with a plebiscite on electoral reform looming, Premier Wade MacLauchlan has already made it clear where he stands.
Islanders will be asked in November to vote on one of several options to elect our legislators. They will include the status quo first-past-the-post, or some variation of it and some form of proportional representation (PR). The current system sees the top vote-getter in each of 27 districts winning the seat, while PR would see at least some seats awarded based on each party’s share of the popular vote.
MacLauchlan is no fan of PR. In fact, he fears it would provide minority governments in perpetuity not a good thing, in his assessment.
Some proponents of PR say he’s sabotaging the process by speaking out now, and Conservative Sidney MacEwen, one of five MLAs serving on a special legislative committee struck to guide the process, has called the premier’s comments inappropriate and irresponsible. He said the premier should trust people enough to make an informed choice for themselves.
In an ideal world, all of the political leaders and their operatives would work to ensure voters understand all of the options so they can make an informed choice.
That said, it’s not terribly surprising that MacLauchlan opposes PR, given his party’s historic success with the current system. Similarly, it would be surprising if Third and Fourth Party leaders look very kindly on the status quo as they’ve elected only two members since Confederation under this system.
The premier has said he does want change but he prefers preferential ballot, a system that enables voters to rank their choices. While that may ensure each member is elected with a majority, it does nothing to address the issue of popular vote.
MacLauchlan has said last year’s election produced a result (10 Liberals, eight PCs and one Green) that offered “parliamentary government at its best.” If that’s true, what are we to make of a spate of previous lopsided elections, among them, 30-2 in 1989, 31-1 in 1993 and 26-1 in 2000. Clearly those results did not offer Islanders anything close to government at its best.
I don’t fault the premier for giving his opinion when asked, but that’s where it should end. After Islanders chose the status quo in the province’s first plebiscite on electoral reform in 2005, UPEI professor Peter McKenna said in an opinion piece government should “scrupulously” guard against involving itself in the process in any future plebiscites.
He was right. If the premier throws himself, or worse his party and any its resources into a fight against PR during the upcoming campaign, then he cheapens the whole process and diminishes the result.
If plebiscites are about asking and not telling and I believe they are then Joe Ghiz got it right in ’88.
MacLauchlan in 2016? That remains to be seen.