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EDITORIAL: Timelines narrowing

The time available for public engagement on an upcoming referendum question is narrowing.
(File Graphic)
The time available for public engagement on an upcoming referendum question is narrowing. (File Graphic) - The Guardian

The government’s tight timetable and obscured agenda doesn’t bode well for fairness or clarity in the referendum process.

It’s curious why the provincial government is so anxious to show Islanders an electoral map under mixed member proportional (MMP) representation. Yes, the map is important. And yes, it’s reassuring it will be drawn up by the independent Electoral Boundaries Commission. But the timing seems out of sequence.

Supporters of electoral reform were hoping to see legislation tabled in the fall sitting on the referendum question which government promised would be on the ballot for the next election. In the speech from the throne Nov. 14, government declared that legislation detailing the rules for a fair and transparent process was forthcoming.

The enabling legislation should also contain clear thresholds for voter participation and the level of support needed for the winning option to become law – key, missing elements in the 2016 plebiscite. Yet, the only subsequent movement on the electoral reform issue came on the final day of the session Dec. 20 when the premier asked the commission to draw up a map to reflect the MMP option.

The referendum bill will contain a second option from government for voters to consider. Presumably, the other choice will be either the status quo of First-Past-the-Post (FPTP), or FPTP plus leaders.

Wouldn’t the normal procedure see legislation tabled and then a revised map ordered once the process is formally launched? An MMP map should be a supplement to a clear referendum question and not the starting point.

The MMP model Islanders voted for proposes a hybrid voting system that would see two-thirds of MLAs (18) in the legislature continue to be elected using FPTP, with the remaining one-third (9) MLAs allocated based on each party’s province-wide popular vote. Every vote takes on added importance.

In a review of the fall sitting last week, government house leader Richard Brown committed that legislation on democratic renewal would be tabled and debated in the 2018 spring session, a year and a half after it was first promised and perhaps only a year before a provincial election call.

The legislative delay is a concern for the P.E.I. Coalition for Proportional Representation, which expressed surprise when the recent fall session ended without the government tabling any referendum details. Concerns deepened when Premier Wade MacLauchlan suggested late in the session that an election call might come earlier to avoid a conflict with a federal vote in October 2019. The reduced time frame would limit a public information campaign.

The coalition has raised alarm that the government might be trying to manipulate the fears of voters – and rural voters in particular – by producing a map containing ridings that are geographically larger than current districts. The coalition has called for an extensive period of consultation and engagement prior to the referendum – a request that may now be impossible to fulfil.

The government could be accused of trying to confuse voters over MMP while keeping its own preference under wraps. That’s blatantly unfair. The government’s tight timetable and obscured agenda doesn’t bode well for fairness or clarity in the referendum process.

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