The provincial government is sending signals that its support for democratic renewal remains lukewarm – at best. The topic was the last issue dealt with in the speech from the throne Tuesday and was limited to four paragraphs. The message is clear.
Supporters of electoral reform can take some satisfaction that the issue was included in the speech. Government could have delayed discussion until late next year or even early 2019, since a referendum in conjunction with the provincial election won’t happen until Oct. 7, 2019.
The timing should ensure that a strong majority of voters would decide the electoral reform question. A low plebiscite turnout last November convinced government not to accept the victory by the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) option.
In the throne speech, government repeated its promise to table referendum legislation in 2018 for a second, binding vote on democratic renewal. This legislation will include “a clear referendum question as well as the rules required for a fair and transparent process.”
That all sounds reasonable, but there is reason for alarm among electoral reform supporters. The government says it will request the creation of a map to show how the MMP system would appear geographically. And while government will craft the referendum legislation, it must allow for full debate and amendment options to ensure a fair and transparent process. It must commit to following the will of the legislature.
The creation of a map suggests the province is hoping that when rural voters see the new districts, they will become alarmed over possible loss of representation under the MMP option. As discussed in the 2016 plebiscite debate, the MMP model would see the number of districts reduced from 27 to 18. The hybrid system combines proportional representation with the current system, so MLAs in those 18 districts would be elected the same way they are now, where the candidate with the most votes wins.
But there would also be nine additional MLAs, to bring the total back up to 27. Those nine seats would be assigned to parties to match the makeup of seats in the House with the proportion of votes each party received in the election. It would virtually guarantee that third parties would earn representation in the legislature and that party leaders will be inside the rail.
If all sides are supportive of a fully informed process, and a well-considered referendum outcome, then P.E.I.’s march to democratic renewal has an excellent chance of long overdue success.
It’s essential that the MMP map be drawn up by Elections P.E.I. to keep any influence or interference of government out of the process. The failure to table thresholds left the 2016 plebiscite results open to government’s after-the-fact interpretation. That mistake can’t be repeated.
A new government isn’t bound by a referendum question posed by a previous administration. A new government doesn’t have to honour the electoral reform result. So all parties should commit to recognizing the outcome during debate on the legislature.
We don't want to see victors rewriting history.