Wade MacLauchlan's comments leave electoral reform on life support

Published on February 6, 2016

Premier Wade MacLauchlan

On one hand premier pushes for reform, but on the other, he tries to guide Islanders toward unpopular option

Winston Churchill once declared that Russia was a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. The same broad terms might be applied to Premier Wade MacLauchlan’s paradoxical position when it comes to electoral reform on Prince Edward Island.

On one hand the premier is pushing for rejuvenating government and reforming the way we elect MLAs. But on the other, he is trying to guide Islanders toward a particular option and not the one that many residents support.

In year-end media interviews, the premier has prejudiced the process that he initiated. There was no chance he was misquoted or that his views were misrepresented. They were plain for all to see and hear.

Government released a white paper on democratic renewal last July and struck an all-party committee of the legislature to consult Islanders on what options they support, narrow down those options, select a clear question for a ballot and then hold a plebiscite in 2016.

The committee did its duty in a vigorous and engaging fashion and reported to the House last November as directed. It recommended the vote be delayed from spring to fall this year. That would allow more time for additional public input and full engagement so everyone would know exactly what he or she was voting on.

That made sense. But then in late December, the premier expressed his disdain for proportional representation a popular option being considered by the legislative committee. It surprised a citizens’ group, created largely to push forward that very option.

One wonders how the legislative committee reacted to the news that the premier appeared to be undermining its work?

The premier’s general position on electoral reform is admirable - " . . . that more people should see that their votes count." He is already on the record saying electoral reform will make the chances of massive majorities less likely which is a good thing.

Then the premier fired holiday broadside after broadside into the belly of the electoral reform ship, sending it careening towards rocky shoals. "I'm not a believer in proportional representation. I think it would give us minority governments in perpetuity . . . we have an active and effective democracy . . . we shouldn't be trying to upset the apple cart or to completely change what has been a system that, frankly, has people engaged."

Ouch. That has to hurt to the electoral reform movement. It’s one thing for John or Jane Q. Public to get up at meetings and voice opinions, but it’s quite another for the premier to sentence an election reform option to death row. And what is wrong with minority governments?

The premier might argue that Islanders expect him to voice his opinion and go on the record or he would be shirking his duty.

A lot of Islanders support a mixed member proportional representative system widely used in most Western democracies. That support was voiced at public meetings and in letters and opinion articles to this newspaper. Generally speaking, proportional representation is a system of government that ensures the legislature has the same representation as the popular vote.

The premier must remember that just over 40 per cent of Islanders voted Liberal last May. A solid majority did not vote for the government, yet the Liberals won 18 of 27 seats.

When the P.E.I. Coalition for Proportional Representation committee met this week, discussion centred on the premier’s comments, which were termed an act of sabotage. Supporters are still smarting from a 2005 plebiscite where 63 per cent of Islanders rejected a proposal for proportional representation.

When the premier of the province is openly against an electoral reform option, the general message to Islanders at large is to avoid changing our current first-past-the-post system. The premier said as much, suggesting it has worked well in our province that leads the nation in voter turnout. So we must be engaged.

The Special Committee on Democratic Renewal is continuing its work by hosting six community forums across the province over the next month. During the meetings, the committee will be having an informative exchange on potential plebiscite questions. But it will have another problem - fending off questions about the premier’s stunning comments.

The 2016 plebiscite, already viewed with suspicion in some areas, is now on life support.