Electoral options raise questions on engagement
Aspecial committee of the legislative assembly created last week to engage Islanders on electoral reform really doesn’t have a lot of time to catch its breath. The committee must present an interim report by Nov. 30, 2015 and present a final report to the legislature by the spring sitting of 2016.
Before that, and of an urgent matter, is the need to clarify to Islanders how the White Paper on Democratic Renewal will effectively engage them over the next nine months or so.
There is already some confusion and apprehension on the three options contained in the white paper.
The document suggests that recent discussions on electoral reform have focused between the status quo – or first-past-the-post system – and proportional representation. The white paper presents a third option - the preferential ballot used last fall by Liberals in Egmont and Progressive Conservatives in selecting their leader in February.
That inclusion has caused nervousness among some reform supporters who sense there might be ‘unofficial’ support for a preferential ballot. There is further nervousness about the extent of public engagement considering the limited time until a final report is due.
The committee is to engage with Islanders prior to the interim report, which will clarify questions to be posed in a plebiscite. The committee will continue to engage Islanders and present a final report during the spring 2016 sitting of the legislative assembly.
That all sounds fine. But if the intent of this white paper is to engage Islanders, why is government presenting its own options?
If the three options are a starting point, fine. But if they are the only options, something is wrong.
Engagement should not be limited to considering pre-determined choices presented by the premier’s office or anyone else. There might be other suggestions or variations. The final plebiscite ballot may contain the above three options or maybe not. What’s on the ballot should be decided by Islanders and fine-tuned by the special committee.
Limiting options might also mean limiting debate.
As now promised, engagement will determine the interim report, and will later determine the final questions and wording for next spring. If not, the committee had better get this corrected right now.
There is a sense of urgency and there should be. The reform question has to be settled first. Once the voting method is determined, then finalizing the number and distribution of seats in the legislative assembly can begin.
Based on submissions and comment to this newspaper, most Islanders who favour electoral reform are lining up behind mixed-member proportional representation - a voting system adopted by numerous legislatures around the world.
MMP is similar to other forms of proportional representation in that the overall total of party members in the elected body is intended to mirror the overall proportion of votes received. It differs by including a set of members elected by geographic constituency.
It is the preferred voting system among 21 of 28 democratic countries in Western Europe.
PR systems were devised to solve problems caused by plurality-majority voting systems. As a rule, PR voting systems provide more accurate representation of parties, better representation for political and racial minorities, fewer wasted votes, higher levels of voter turnout, better representation of women and greater likelihood of majority rule.
While the government is being applauded for taking steps that could see P.E.I. become the first Canadian jurisdiction to move beyond the ‘first-past-the-post’ system, there is some uncertainty.
That apprehension surrounds the emphasis given to the preferential ballot. This presumed bias is unsettling because it gives the impression that the preferential ballot will result in balanced representation.
Under the preferential ballot system the number of party seats in the house still likely would not reflect the popular vote.
The premier assures us that since electoral reform affects every Islander, government is committed to gaining the broadest possible input on these important questions.
Let’s hope that is the case.