Islanders hunger for renewal, reform of democratic system
The recent provincial election clearly indicates that Islanders are ready and hungry for change. Call it what you will – democratic renewal or electoral reform - but the time is ripe to proceed. Engagement and transparency were common themes from all parties during the campaign because they accurately sensed the mood of Islanders. The outcome of that election focused attention on the distorted results, where voter support was not fairly recognized among the MLAs elected.
Islanders in record numbers – more than 20 per cent - voted for third parties. But their voice is largely silent in the House. A close vote between the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives resulted in a comfortable re-election for the government.
Letters and opinion articles to this newspaper became a flood since the election results May 4 - supporting change - and offering various options and suggestions.
The government promised in May’s speech from the throne to table a white paper on democratic renewal that would serve as a means to engage Islanders. That happened Thursday.
One could sense history in the making as Premier Wade MacLauchlan tabled the document. A motion to create a special committee of the legislature to consult Islanders was seconded by Opposition Leader Stephen Myers and then endorsed unanimously by all MLAs. It was nonpartisanship at its finest.
As the throne speech clearly stated, “Government will initiate and support a thorough and comprehensive examination of ways in which to strengthen our electoral system . . .” Not only will the review deal with electoral reform and how MLAs are elected – although that will be the first priority - but also electoral districts and the numbers of MLAs sitting in the legislature.
This is an exciting and historic era for P.E.I. legislators. The collegial and positive comments made Friday by MLAs prior to the closure of the spring sitting reflected this sense of history and the belief that things may never again be the same in the Cradle of Confederation. Friday marked the end of a session but the start of journey towards reform that increasing numbers of Islanders are seeking.
A lengthy history of lopsided election results sparked recent efforts at electoral reform. In the 2005 plebiscite, the status quo vote carried the day decisively – 64 per cent to 36 per cent. A valuable lesson was learned on the need for clarity and prior engagement with Islanders.
We have to get it right this time. Failure in 2016 could set electoral reform back many years. We need to learn from past mistakes and not repeat them. The document’s purpose is to initiate discussion where we have a unique opportunity to lead the nation on electoral reform.
Islanders can rightly take pride in the high level of voter turnout where percentages reach into the high 80s. Reforms will help maintain that high level of democratic participation, and “ensure our institutions, processes and representation continue to reflect the values and interests of all Islanders.”
As the throne speech also pointed out, a diversity of ideas and perspectives is critically important to creating effective public policy. Democracy demands that the people affected by a decision have a voice in that decision. And common sense dictates that new directions are most likely to be supported by Islanders if they have a say early in the process.
The white paper is an informative document and a solid starting point for MLAs and Islanders in their coming deliberations.
The legislature committee will consult Islanders, present an interim report by Nov. 30 that will clarify the question to be posed in a plebiscite and then consult with Islanders again on a final report. Islanders will then vote in the spring of 2016. There is a sense of urgency before the lessons learned from the May election begin to fade.
The white paper should be viewed as a working document and subject to change once the views of Islanders are heard. And Islanders love to talk politics. Let the process begin.