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OPINION: In danger of being buried in shuffle

P.E.I. governments had consistently honoured the results of plebiscites up until 2016.
(Guardian File Graphic)
P.E.I. governments had consistently honoured the results of plebiscites up until 2016. (Guardian File Graphic) - The Guardian

A referendum lost in election timing games would be one letdown too much to bear



February 1st marked the one-year anniversary of the Trudeau Liberals abandoning their promise to “make 2015 the last election under first-past-the-post” and to “make every vote count”, letting down millions of Canadians who had hoped for something better.
More locally, some are beginning to fear that a promise made by Premier Wade MacLauchlan in 2016 may be headed for a similar fate. That promise was, of course, to hold a binding referendum in conjunction with the next provincial general election on whether to honour the 2016 plebiscite results in favour of Mixed Member Proportional Representation (MMP).
Lay aside, for a moment, the as-yet-unresolved constitutional questions about how such a referendum could truly bind a future legislature, or about why there should be a second vote at all, when P.E.I. governments had consistently honoured the results of plebiscites up until 2016.
The bigger issue with the promised referendum comes down to timing. Election timing. According to the Election Act, the next election should normally take place in October 2019, but since a federal election is already scheduled for that same month, the next P.E.I. general election should happen on April 27, 2020 instead.
Seems clear enough, except that the Act preserves the constitutional right of the Lieutenant Governor (the Premier) to call new elections at any time. And our Premier is certainly guarding this privilege very closely. In his year-end interview with Guardian reporter Teresa Wright, Premier MacLauchlan was careful not to commit to the fixed election date when pressed.

How can the Premier promise to call the next election “in a way that’s consistent with… the spirit of the law” and yet continue to leave Islanders in the dark, trying to guess when the next election will be? Recent weeks and months have been rife with speculation of an early election, and the Premier has neither said nor done anything to dispel that speculation. If anything, he has fueled it.
Back to the referendum. While the Premier has indicated a keenness for holding a general election at a time when Islanders “can best express their views,” it’s not clear if that would include their views on the best voting system going forward. A referendum would be no trivial matter. It would be the first of its kind on P.E.I., and would of course require a significant effort on the part of both Elections P.E.I. and volunteer, citizen-led proponent groups to mobilize and educate voters about their ballot options. All of this is to take place amidst the hubbub of the general election taking place at the exact same time, and, in the case of an early election call, within a 26-32 day writ period.
I’m not sure how the good folks at Elections P.E.I. feel about their capacity to deliver on all that would be expected of them in such short order, but I know that I and other citizens are very concerned about how little room a snap early election would leave for fair, quality public education and engagement on the most important evolution of our democracy since women were granted the franchise a century ago.
I would be surprised if he hadn’t already thought of this. If so, I suggest that there are two honourable ways to keep his promise, uphold fairness and basic democratic principles, and prevent a debacle: a) stop playing games with election timing, and give Elections P.E.I. and citizens groups the firm timeline they need to plan for a great general election and referendum; or, better yet, b) honour the 2016 vote by legislating the implementation of MMP, as democratically chosen by Islanders.
A referendum lost (or buried) in the shuffle of election timing games would be one letdown too much to bear.

- Jordan Bober is a member of the P.E.I. Coalition for Proportional Representation

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