When Lt.-Gov. Antoinette Perry reads the speech from the throne to open the third session of the 65th General Assembly of the P.E.I. Legislature this afternoon at 2:00 p.m., Islanders will listen carefully to hear the current government’s plans regarding a number of sensitive economic and social issues.
Many P.E.I. residents will be interested in how the continuation of electoral renewal will play out. Premier MacLauchlan rejected the 2016 plebiscite voters’ choice, Mixed Member Proportional Representation.
However he made it clear that in the next election in 2019, there would be a referendum on electoral systems as part of the regular ballot. In various fora since the 2016 plebiscite, the premier also made it clear that Mixed Member Proportional would be on the upcoming referendum ballot plus one other choice.
It seems that the Legislative Assembly will decide on the second choice on the referendum ballot. As well it is expected that the Legislature will decide on the guidelines and procedures for the referendum.
Many people, including the P.E.I. Coalition for Proportional Representation, will be especially attentive to the opening of the Legislature today.
The Cooper Institute, as a member of the Coalition for Proportional Representation, is of course interested in what will be decided as a referendum question. But just as important we are concerned about what form of community engagement will take place in preparation for the referendum.
The Institute has 34 years experience working with a wide range of community-based organizations on many crucial issues. Our original concept of engagement is best described as a community development model, which begins with the assumption that people already have a lot of knowledge.
Our goal is to have people share that knowledge with each other with clarifications only where necessary. How they decide to vote in the referendum is their choice. It should be an enlightened choice. Nobody has the right to set out to impose a choice on citizens.
The people need to decide without undue pressure. The more complicated and/or high-pressured the education process is, the less will voters make a free choice.
Basically though, our biggest concern is not about how ready the community will be to vote and even to adopt Mixed Member Proportional Representation, if that were to be the result of the 2019 referendum. We are more concerned that the political parties will not be ready. The current four political parties have for years been steeped in a winner-loser, adversarial election style. All of the parties need to do some soul-searching and training.
A first question: how ready are the parties to accept that absolute power would never again be their election prize? Secondly: how do you go from a position of outright competition, and sometimes hostility, to one of co-operation across party lines and sharing power?
For many people in P.E.I., it will be a welcome day when the representation in the legislature will reflect the actual vote of citizens. But it is also essential that their MLAs represent the interests, needs, and concerns of the people. We want policies which are designed, based on the will of the people. We want policies made in full view of the people (that’s what transparency means).
We want policies, which go beyond the letter of the law to highlight the spirit of the law. We want MLAs who know how to work together so that policies, which many groups have identified, will serve the best interests of Islanders. Some of the policies now worrying the population are: school closures; elected school boards, mental health services, appropriate and fair immigration; protection of land and water; sustainable rural development; climate change; trade justice; food security; violence against women and children, and Basic Income Guarantee.
- Marie Burge of Cooper Institute Collective, which is an organizational member of the P.E.I. Coalition for Proportional Representation