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OPINION: Is electoral reform the answer?

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Bryson Guptill

Guest Opinion

The drama surrounding Jody Wilson-Raybould and the SNC-Lavalin affair continues to play out in Ottawa, with former Treasury Board Secretary Jane Philpott now stirring the pot by suggesting to Maclean’s Magazine there is more to this story than what meets the eye.

Some commentators are suggesting that if Philpott and Wilson-Raybould have more to say, they should speak their truth in the House of Commons where they are unfettered by restrictions that might be imposed on other Canadians. Meanwhile, the continued revelations and testimony by former cabinet ministers and others close to Justin Trudeau’s inner circle have given new fodder to Andrew Scheer and Jagmeet Singh as they hammer for Trudeau’s resignation, or at least a public inquiry, into the “ins” and “outs” of the SNC-Lavalin controversy.

Trudeau and his cabinet colleagues have already passed an order in council giving Wilson-Raybould the ability to talk freely about the SNC-Lavalin saga without fear of recrimination relating to solicitor-client privilege or cabinet confidence. What we, the general public, have been exposed to is the messy business of policy and political decision making as the PM and his cabinet colleagues wrestle with possible sanctions against a company that has deep connections in both Quebec and Ontario. No one is surprised that these discussions take place – what is unprecedented is that we have been so exposed to what are normally secret discussions.

The information age and social media have given us more access to information than we ever had before. This access has allowed each of us to make our own decisions about where we stand on the left to right political spectrum. Justin Trudeau has taken an inclusive approach – his cabinet has been more diverse than under any previous leader. He’s now paying the price with two strong ministers who have resisted pressure from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) to make decisions that tow the “party line.” In the U.S., the approach has been just the opposite – under Donald Trump, it’s his way or the highway, as his recent attacks on the late Sen. John McCain have so aptly illustrated.

P.E.I. will soon face a decision on electoral reform that mirrors the political drama in Ottawa around SNC-Lavalin.  We are already seeing an erosion of the two-party system in P.E.I., with the Green party leading in the polls, the Liberals and the Conservatives running neck-and-neck, and the NDP bringing up the rear. Splintering the vote among four parties instead of two has led to pressure to award seats in the legislature based on proportion of the popular vote (mixed member proportional) instead of the winner-take-all first-past-the-post. A more fractured system, however, could simply put the horse trading that now takes place behind cabinet table doors in full view of the general public. 

MMP results in more minority governments than FPPT. Do we want to have policy debates in public view, or are we happy to have these discussions at the cabinet table? That may be the essence of the “No” versus “Yes” debate that’s unfolding in the run up to the next provincial election.

Bryson Guptill is a retired public servant who worked as a senior policy advisor for federal and provincial governments in Ottawa and Charlottetown.

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