Commentary by Peter Bevan-Baker
Dr. Peter Bevan-Baker
I could not agree more with the headline that accompanied Mike Redmond’s recent letter — “Partisanship crushing P.E.I.” I could not disagree more, however with his suggested remedy — to reduce the number of MLAs.
Our Island is indeed small, in population not much more than a large town, and yet we have the gift of jurisdiction that comes with being a province. In our Westminster system of parliamentary democracy, a goodly number of opposition members and government back-benchers are necessary for the system to work effectively — for there to be adequate checks and balances on the power of the Premier’s Office. When we look at other small-island jurisdictions, some with populations significantly smaller than P.E.I., it’s very rare to find a legislature or parliament with fewer than 30 members. In the Isle of Man, for example, the Parliament (the Tynwald) has 35 members for a population of 86,000 people.
A reduction in the number of elected members, with the implied reduction of government costs and improved efficiency, may be a popular position to promote politically, but for the well-being of a functional democracy on P.E.I., it is a dreadful idea. The disproportionately high cost of government in any small jurisdiction is not a result of the direct costs associated with its elected members, rather it is the result of a monstrous bureaucracy behind the scenes. I would much rather see the number of elected MLAs retained (though put there under a more modern voting system) and a significant reduction in the size of the bureaucracy associated with our government.
We should follow the lead of Iceland, a sovereign country with about twice the population of P.E.I., where they have an elected Parliament, the Althing, of 63 members (proportionately more elected representatives per population than P.E.I.). If we were to emulate Iceland — a jurisdiction with far fewer agencies, boards and commissions than P.E.I. — we would perhaps start to value our elected representatives, but also demand much more of them. I believe our Island MLAs are overpaid and underutilized. With elected privilege should come profound responsibility. Instead we have a situation on P.E.I. where ministers are shielded from their responsibilities by unelected boards and commissions who do little more than provide outlets for partisan appointments and muddy the waters of accountability.
It is disingenuous of Mr. Redmond to ascribe all the ills he lists in his letter to size of government, not to mention what masters of partisanship the NDP has become in Ottawa and beyond. Our poor performance and record on all the issues he quite rightly laments — from educational shortcomings to economic insecurity — are more likely the result of a profound lack of political vision, and the predominant patterns on P.E.I. of patronage and nepotism which get in the way of good governance.
The way out of our often dysfunctional political past and present is to adopt a proportional electoral system, to reduce government bureaucracy while creating a prosperous economy that will absorb the many people who consequently would be looking for work, and to demand more of our elected representatives.
Peter Bevan-Baker is the leader of the Green Party of P.E.I.