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EDITORIAL: Major flaws in legislation

P.E.I. governments had consistently honoured the results of plebiscites up until 2016.
(Guardian File Graphic)
P.E.I. governments had consistently honoured the results of plebiscites up until 2016. (Guardian File Graphic) - SaltWire Network

There is still time to bring in major amendments to the ESRA bill, and cast off unnecessary fetters placed on this historic legislation

There are serious problems with the Electoral System Referendum Act (ESRA) tabled in the P.E.I. legislature last week. Government has turned this process into an adversarial exercise when it should be an open, bi-partisan and collegial effort at renewing the way we elect members to the legislative assembly.

Instead, we have restrictions, threats of fines and controls which limit public engagement in this important step at reforming the method used to select MLAs. The bill restricts public debate and curbs a vital element in our democratic process – freedom of speech.

The bill creates two opposing factions on this landmark question, instead of allowing citizens to make an informed decision without the distraction of party loyalties and interference of partisan agendas.

When citizens enter the voting booth in the next provincial election, they will likely – thanks to flaws in the ESRA bill -- cast a second partisan vote. One vote will be for an MLA in their district while a second ballot will ask citizens if they prefer Mixed Member Proportional Representation (MMP) over the current First-Past-the-Post. It’s a question that an informed electorate should decide without party interference – whether they be Liberals, Greens, PCs or NDP. The second question should not, and need not, be a partisan issue.

Problems with this legislation were clearly outlined in opinion submissions to this newspaper on three occasions this week. Islanders should take time to review these articles from Marie Burge, Anna Keenan and Brenda Oslawsky – all members of the P.E.I. Coalition for Proportional Representation, a group which includes supporters of all parties.

There are serious flaws in this bill which should been tabled by the Special Committee on Democratic Renewal – an all-party group which held Island-wide meetings and heard more than 1,000 submissions from Islanders throughout 2015 on the renewal process. This committee approved the plebiscite questions presented to Islanders in November 2016, but since then, has been ignored.

Once Premier Wade MacLauchlan rejected the plebiscite winner (MMP) and instead supported a “binding” referendum tied to the next election, the matter should have been passed back to the special committee. The all-party group should have decided on referendum legislation and regulations.

Why did this government veer away from its lofty goals in the June 3, 2015, speech from the throne which outlined a commitment to review ways to strengthen the electoral system, representation and the role of the legislative assembly? The white paper on democratic renewal and the hard work of the special committee seem like wasted efforts.

The coalition’s goal is to inform the public on the benefits of PR and let Islanders make an informed decision. Its mission is not to oust this or any government but to make elections more representative of the will of the people, ensure that every vote counts and strengthen our democratic institutions. Who can stand in opposition to these ideals?

There is still time to bring in major amendments to the ESRA bill, purge the legislation of partisanship and cast off unnecessary fetters placed on this historic legislation.

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