© Guardian file photo
Charlottetown-Brighton MLA Jordan Brown, foreground, chairs P.E.I.'s special committee on democratic renewal.
Electoral reform offers an opportunity to reinvigorate our democracy, but P.E.I. political parties must show leadership
While it will come as a surprise to many Islanders, they will soon be asked if they desire electoral reform and, if so, what shape it will take.
A legislature committee is tackling the issue. Last fall’s first round of public meetings discussed possible options to the present system, which is called First Past the Post (FPTP).
Critics of the system complain it allows parties to form overwhelming majorities while receiving less than a majority mandate from voters.
For example, the MacLauchlan Liberals received 40.8 per cent of the votes cast in May 2015 but received 18 legislature seats, which represents 67 per cent of them. A federal example of a similar FPTP system came last fall when the Liberals won 184 seats in Parliament. That’s 54.4 per cent of Commons seats, but the party did it with only 39.5 per cent of the votes cast.
The list of lopsided examples produced by FPTP is a long one, but it was never that big of an issue on Prince Edward Island until third parties came into prominence.
In the last P.E.I. election, 22 per cent of the electorate voted for the Green Party and NDP, yet only one member of a third party was elected.
Armed with such evidence, the legislature committee has come up with some intriguing ways of ensuring that more votes count.
They include systems called First Past the Post Plus, Dual Member Mixed Proportion, Mixed Member Proportional and Preferential Voting.
At the present time, the committee is working to determine what the electoral reform plebiscite question will be. Once it is approved by the legislature, a public education campaign is planned from June to October in advance of a November plebiscite. Outside of family reunions and barbecues, it’s hard to get the attention of Islanders during the summer and early fall, so that education campaign will be a challenge.
Let’s face it. Islanders are not big on change. All jokes aside, some still question building a bridge to the mainland and allowing canned pop in.
So, given a choice between something they know, FPTP, and a rather confusing change to our electoral system, the default vote will likely stay with the system people know, which is what the electorate did in 2005, the last time electoral reform was put to a vote
It’s for that reason that I think the process is being rushed. Perhaps that’s the case so that at the end of the exercise the politicians will be able to say, in Pontius Pilate-fashion, they are washing their hands of the issue and it is up to the people.
That is unfair. It is too much to expect a mostly disinterested electorate to both vote for change and pick a new electoral system in one fell swoop.
Before we decide which buggy to hitch our horse up to, people must first be convinced there is a need for change, that we need a voting system that takes into account not just the powerful old-line parties and their allies, but also the interests and concerns of all voters.
And that’s not going to happen without the bi-partisan support of all P.E.I. parties. Outside of the fact nothing beats the taste of new potatoes, P.E.I. parties rarely see eye-to-eye on issues. That needs to change.
If our P.E.I. political parties truly want electoral change —Premier Wade MacLauchlan has already muddied the waters with his status quo comments — then they must agree on the principle of electoral reform and sell that idea to Islanders.
We need to get the bride — the public — to the altar in the sense of getting a commitment for electoral reform. Once the commitment is in place, an educational program will allow Islanders to choose the new system they want.
And then, like all marriages, it will be for better or worse, but there will be no turning back.
Gary MacDougall is a retired P.E.I. journalist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.