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OPINION: Clarity, fairness in peril

P.E.I. government fails to table any information on pending electoral referendum.
(File Graphic)
P.E.I. government fails to table any information on pending electoral referendum. (File Graphic) - The Guardian

Delay in presenting information for referendum doesn’t bode well for electoral reform

BY RON KELLY

GUEST OPINION

In its Nov. 14 Throne Speech, the Liberal government of Prince Edward Island pledged to hold “a clear referendum question on democratic renewal ... in conjunction with the next provincial election.” It also indicated that the referendum legislation would include “the rules required for a fair and transparent process” and promised to “do everything within the scope of its responsibility to assure clarity, fairness and the inclusion of all voices during this process”.

Members of the P.E.I. Coalition for Proportional Representation were surprised then, when the recent legislative assembly session concluded without the government tabling any of these materials. With a provincial election slated for no later than October 7, 2019 – unless a federal election is scheduled for the same time period – there will only be 18 months remaining if these measures are introduced in the next legislative session.

If the government decides to call an election ahead of that date – which it can do under the P.E.I. Elections Act and, in fact, did do in 2015 – the time frame will be reduced even further.

One would think that a government dedicated to assuring “clarity, fairness and the inclusion of all voices” would have been eager to provide this information at the earliest possible date. The MacLauchlan government has not even proposed the second referendum option, to compete against the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system supported by the majority of voters in the November 2016, plebiscite.

Strangely, though, the government has been eager to design a map showing how MMP might be implemented. Normally, this process – and the time and expenditures involved – would be initiated once MMP is selected by voters as their preferred choice in the upcoming referendum.

Could it be that the government hopes to manipulate the fears of voters – and rural voters in particular – by producing a map containing ridings that are geographically larger than current ridings? If so, will the government also be pointing out that, under MMP, each voter will be represented by not just one MLA but by several MLAs? Or that, instead of having just one local MLA – who could represent a party that the voter doesn’t support – voters will have direct access to additional representatives from a variety of parties and backgrounds?

In public presentations, members of the P.E.I. Coalition for Proportional Representation have called for an extensive period of public consultation and engagement prior to the electoral reform referendum. In our view, voters should have the opportunity to examine all matters in a clear, comprehensive, objective and unbiased fashion.

If the provincial government is really sincere about presenting a “clear referendum question” with all “the rules required for a fair and transparent process” in a manner that assures “clarity, fairness and the inclusion of all voices,” then why delay the release of its detailed proposal while, at the same time, focusing on the creation of an MMP map?

None of this bodes well for fairness or clarity in the referendum process.

- Ron Kelly, Charlottetown, is a member of the Prince Edward Island Coalition for Proportional Representation and served on its communications committee during both the 2005 and the 2016 plebiscites on electoral reform.

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