BY MARIE BURGE
The new Electoral System Referendum Act’s stated purpose is to establish a level playing field in the upcoming referendum for the yes and no sides of the question about P.E.I. adopting the Mixed Member Proportional System (MMP). At present, leading the Yes side is the P.E.I. Coalition for Proportional Representation (PR) and its followers; leading the No side is the Government of Prince Edward Island.
Problem # 1 - The advantage: From the start, the field is already set up giving advantage to the government which is presenting this legislation. When you begin with one side having a head start on the other, you can’t pretend to create equality by treating them the same. For those who know the ancient story about David and Goliath: In today’s reality David, is the Yes side. We are a coalition of community-based organizations and individuals, depending mainly on the generosity of volunteering citizens. Our goal is to inform Islanders about the advantages of MMP. On the other hand, Goliath has an up-and-ready, well-funded big red machine with tentacles in every district and poll in P.E.I. Plus, our Goliath has a communications squad to the tune of close to $1 million a year.
Problem # 2 - The Question: The Act defines the referendum question as “Should Prince Edward Island change its voting system to a mixed member proportional system?” Good clear question; however, a motion in the legislature proposed that the voters’ choice would be No or Yes. The arrangement of these two little words is not accidental. People with years of experience in political manoeuvres, communications, and linguistics tell us that when the ordering of the yes/no answer is reversed to no/yes, it is to ensure a no answer. (Though there could have been a simple choice on the referendum ballot with voters choosing either MMP or the current system, First-Past-the-Post.)
Problem #3 - The threshold: It is understandable that the usual high percentage of voters will vote for their MLA, but it’s likely that some will not bother with the referendum question. The requirement of 50 per cent plus one, for an MMP win sounds reasonable, until you see in the Act that this does not mean 50 per cent of those who voted in the referendum. Instead MMP would have to win by 50 per cent of those who voted for their district representative. We see this as a cheap ploy.
Problem # 4 - Education: Islanders want to know more about MMP. Really? Who is going to do that? It will hardly be the government, the major players on the No side. With the hundreds of thousands in public money invested in the 2016 plebiscite, the education on electoral renewal was a total failure. This admission was made by the premier when he announced that his government would ignore the voters’ majority choice of MMP because the voter turnout was too low to be honoured. The reason given for the low voter turnout was that people didn’t understand the options. The only real education on proportional representation was done by our PR Coalition, with a modest budget. In the upcoming referendum, the Act allows $75,000 for each side (divided of course among the number of authorized groups).
Problem # 5 - Control: The Act makes it clear that control is the name of this game, with a lot of discretion given to the Referendum Commissioner to be appointed by the legislature, and to take office on June 1, 2018. The commissioner will be responsible for referendum education, who can be authorized as referendum advertisers (meaning yes groups and no groups), the amount of public money allotted to each group, and the overseeing of the groups and their spending, ensuring that the groups do not solicit or receive any donations over and above the public money allotted. There seems to be no provision for transparency in any of this.
Back to David and Goliath: from the point of view of the P.E.I. Coalition for Proportional Representation, “we have a case of David against Goliath but with a ban on slingshots,” (original quote from Chris Ortenburger).
- Marie Burge, on behalf of the P.E.I. Coalition for Proportional Representation. Her organization, Cooper Institute, is an original coalition member.