Elec­toral op­tions raise ques­tions on en­gage­ment

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - EDITORIAL -

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.

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