The sense of urgency exhibited by the Prince Edward Island government this spring as it scrambled to get referendum legislation in place has largely abated. The same can be said for the selection of a commissioner to co-ordinate the vote on electoral reform. The original date to have a commissioner in place was June 1 – more than three months ago.
The position has been pushed into the background, despite repeated public warnings from Opposition Leader James Aylward over the need to select the commissioner through a transparent and open process. Other referendum-related deadlines have also come and gone. It suggests a significant change in the government’s political priorities.
By the time legislation was finally passed in mid-June, speculation about the election was pushed into the early fall. Now, here we are in early September, meaning the earliest date for a provincial election is late spring 2019.
The province is obviously weighing the most opportune time for winning another mandate, with little regard for the needs of a referendum, and apparently, the selection of its commissioner. If it senses that the surprising strength of the Green party and the resurgence of the Progressive Conservatives have peaked – the government would want to take advantage of the robust economy and go to the polls next May. If not, Islanders might have to wait until the spring of 2020 to pass judgment on this government.
The government’s wiggle room in all this has been somewhat curtailed. The Electoral System Referendum Act stipulates an election must be held sometime within eight months following cabinet’s decision to approve the start of the campaigning period for the referendum. It’s far more likely the referendum period could roughly parallel a provincial campaign of between 4 to 5 weeks.
Every delay in selecting a commissioner seems to dovetail with each decision to push back the date of an election by Liberal party strategists. It’s more urgent that a referendum commissioner be approved soon because the time period to prepare for what will be a confusing campaign is shrinking with each passing day. Voters will be swamped with information on Mixed Member Proportional Representation (MMP), while trying to deal with election promises from four political parties. The longer government waits to select the commissioner, the more likely we’ll see a rushed MMP information and education period. The priorities of the four parties will be on electing MLAs, more than a referendum question.
The legislation calls for an all-party legislative management committee to recommend a person for the position, and then a two-thirds majority of MLA's would have to approve. The committee has started to meet -- behind closed doors -– while the legislature won’t reconvene until mid-November.
Mr. Aylward notes that the House of Commons Board of Internal Economy holds its meetings in public, and provinces such as Newfoundland and Labrador and British Columbia hold public committee meetings. It’s time for P.E.I. to follow suit.
Islanders shouldn’t accept decisions being made behind closed doors, especially one as significant as the selection of a referendum commissioner.