Elec­toral re­form once again rears its head

Is­lan­ders to be asked how they want to choose their gov­ern­ment

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OPINION - BY PETER MCKENNA Peter McKenna is pro­fes­sor and chair of po­lit­i­cal science at the Univer­sity of Prince Ed­ward Is­land.

. . . . The P.E.I. gov­ern­ment is pledg­ing to hold a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum on elec­toral re­form in 2016. To be hon­est, I'm not sure whether to jump for joy or to burst out laugh­ing.

Editor's note: This is the first of a two-part se­ries on elec­toral re­form. There has been a fair amount of buzz around the idea of Prince Ed­ward Is­land once again walk­ing down the path of "demo­cratic re­newal."

It is also worth re­call­ing that we've also been down this of­ten tricky path be­fore in Novem­ber 2005. Still, some peo­ple are more op­ti­mistic this time around.

In a July ed­i­to­rial in The Guardian, the per­son hold­ing the pen opined: "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."

I'd hardly say "nu­mer­ous" and, be­sides, that pro­posed sys­tem was an un­mit­i­gated dis­as­ter in 2005, when the same type of model was up for public ap­proval.

Why would things be dif­fer­ent to­day? Has any­thing fun­da­men­tally changed? Is there a sin­gle elected party mem­ber on P.E.I. now ad­vanc­ing such a sys­tem?

Nonethe­less, the P.E.I. gov­ern­ment is pledg­ing to hold a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum on elec­toral re­form in 2016. To be hon­est, I'm not sure whether to jump for joy or to burst out laugh­ing.

No mat­ter. P.E.I. is dif­fer­ent, so we're told. It is the place where dreams of demo­cratic re­newal can come true. In­deed, P.E.I. elected the first fe­male premier, Cather­ine Call­beck, in 1993 and has some of the high­est voter par­tic­i­pa­tion rates in the fed­er­a­tion (wit­ness the 86 per cent turnout for the May 2015 pro­vin­cial elec­tion, the high­est in 30 years). The May elec­tion also saw the two op­po­si­tion par­ties, the Greens and the NDP, garner a record num­ber of over 20 per cent com­bined of public sup­port.

In early July, the Lib­eral gov­ern­ment of Wade MacLauchan is­sued a White Pa­per on Demo­cratic Re­newal, where he men­tioned that P.E.I. could be­come "the first Cana­dian ju­ris­dic­tion to move be­yond the 'first-past-the-sys­tem in choos­ing our elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives." MacLauchan went on to add: "The White Pa­per in­vites all Is­lan­ders to work to­gether as we build on our tra­di­tions and con­text to put Prince Ed­ward Is­land on the map for our demo­cratic pro­cesses and rates of par­tic­i­pa­tion."

Ac­cord­ing to the White Pa­per, P.E.I. will seek public con­sul­ta­tion on cre­at­ing four dual rid­ings (along the lines of the present four fed­eral dis­tricts) that would also each have 6 small sin­gle-mem­ber dis­tricts within them ( for a to­tal of 28 elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives), the use of a pref­er­en­tial bal­lot sys­tem (where vot­ers could rank two or more pref­er­ences/can­di­dates among those of­fer­ing in each lo­cal dis­trict) and elec­tion fi­nance re­form (such as plac­ing re­stric­tions on do­na­tions and spend­ing).

A spe­cial leg­isla­tive com­mit­tee will now be set up to con­sult with Is­lan­ders, to seek broad public in­put, and to for­mu­late the spring 2016 plebiscite ques­tion. That ques­tion, as the dis­cus­sion pa­per notes, "will be guided by a pref­er­en­tial bal­lot on the three vot­ing op­tions: (i) first-past-the-post, the cur­rent sys­tem, (ii) a pref­er­en­tial bal­lot, (iii) pro­por­tional rep­re­sen­ta­tion." More dis­cus­sion of this pro­posal in my sec­ond in­stal­ment.

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