Democ­racy red alert

Who will have the courage to in­tro­duce and vote for the re­quired amend­ments?


Is­lan­ders, if you en­joy liv­ing in a democ­racy, this is a red alert. The Elec­toral Sys­tem Ref­er­en­dum Act, tabled as Bill 38 last Thurs­day, is an abom­inable in­fringe­ment on your rights as a ci­ti­zen.

The bill was tabled by Jor­dan Brown: a lawyer, MLA for Char­lot­te­town-Brighton, Min­is­ter of Jus­tice, and P.E.I.’s At­tor­ney Gen­eral.

P.E.I.’s At­tor­ney Gen­eral is sup­posed to be our guardian of the pub­lic in­ter­est. So, he should be aware that in the 2009, B.C.’s Supreme Court struck down a very sim­i­lar law to the one he just tabled. The rul­ing in BC Teach­ers’ Fed­er­a­tion vs BC (2009) - up­held in 2011 after an ap­peal - said that the law was an un­jus­ti­fied re­stric­tion on free­dom of ex­pres­sion, pro­tected by the Cana­dian Char­ter of Rights and Free­doms.

This mo­ment is a test for our MLAs, whether Lib­eral, PC, Green or in­de­pen­dent. They pass if they vote to amend the leg­is­la­tion to a stan­dard that meets ba­sic demo­cratic prin­ci­ples. They fail if they stay silent.

The fol­low­ing is just a taste of what must be amended if Is­land democ­racy is to stand strong. If th­ese don’t seem out­ra­geous to you, imag­ine if this was a ref­er­en­dum on an is­sue closer to your heart. Men­tal health care? Re­li­gious free­dom? Re­form­ing the PNP? Agri­cul­ture pol­icy? Ru­ral schools?

1st - Ex­treme lim­i­ta­tions on free­dom of speech. If you or your or­ga­ni­za­tion wish to spend any of your own money in sup­port­ing or op­pos­ing Mixed-Mem­ber Pro­por­tional Rep­re­sen­ta­tion, di­rectly or in­di­rectly, you will need to track your ex­penses. Once costs ex­ceed $500, any fur­ther spend­ing is banned, or you will be sub­ject to a $10,000 fine.

You would be banned from spend­ing money to main­tain a web­site, print fly­ers, rent a com­mu­nity hall or even pro­vide tea and bis­cuits for an ed­u­ca­tional event. The ban would last un­til the ref­er­en­dum - which could be two months, or up to 23 months away - only the premier knows.

2 - The thresh­old for change is rigged, and opens the door for vote sup­pres­sion tac­tics. Un­der the pro­posed act, if less than half of all gen­eral elec­tion vot­ers par­tic­i­pate in the ref­er­en­dum, then even if 100% of ref­er­en­dum vot­ers say they want change, the re­sult is still not con­sid­ered ‘bind­ing’.

3 - You have no idea what Mixed-Mem­ber Pro­por­tional Rep­re­sen­ta­tion is? Too bad! The leg­is­la­tion makes no al­lowance for ‘ed­u­ca­tion’ (shar­ing fac­tual in­for­ma­tion about what the choice is about) - only for ‘ad­ver­tis­ing’ (in­tended to in­flu­ence how cit­i­zens vote). The lack of clear pro­vi­sion for neu­tral, ed­u­ca­tional pro­gram­ming - by ei­ther gov­ern­ment de­part­ments or grass­roots groups - re­stricts your ac­cess to new in­for­ma­tion, and gives a dis­tinct ad­van­tage to the sta­tus quo sys­tem that you al­ready have ex­pe­ri­ence of. The ‘ad­ver­tis­ing only’ ap­proach opens the doors wide open to Amer­i­can-style ‘fake news’ pro­pa­ganda cam­paigns. There are a dozen ad­di­tional con­cerns, which the Coali­tion for Pro­por­tional Rep­re­sen­ta­tion will pub­lish on our web­sites as soon as we can. As an all-vol­un­teer or­ga­ni­za­tion, our abil­ity to re­spond quickly and hold the gov­ern­ment to ac­count is lim­ited.

The Lib­eral cab­i­net knows this; this leg­is­la­tion was sud­denly dropped on the ta­ble in the fi­nal weeks of the leg­isla­tive sit­ting. There is a scant two weeks for de­bate be­fore the leg­is­la­tion is pro­posed to come into force. De­spite prom­ises of pub­lic con­sul­ta­tion, there has been no at­tempt in the last 18 months, since the re­jec­tion of the plebiscite out­comes, to en­gage any mem­bers of the pub­lic in de­vel­op­ing the bill.

Bill 38 is a bla­tant at­tempt by gov­ern­ment to limit cit­i­zens’ rights to free­dom of po­lit­i­cal ex­pres­sion. The ar­chi­tects of the Char­ter of Rights and Free­doms would con­demn it. Are there any MLAs who will put our demo­cratic rights be­fore their party loy­alty? Who will have the courage to in­tro­duce and vote for the re­quired amend­ments? If you love democ­racy, whether you sup­port Pro­por­tional Rep­re­sen­ta­tion or not, do not al­low the gov­ern­ment to un­der­mine our rights. Now is the time to rise up - con­tact your MLA and de­mand that they de­fend your ci­ti­zen rights, by amend­ing Bill 38.

Anna Keenan lives in St. Ann. She is a mem­ber of the P.E.I. Coali­tion for Pro­por­tional Rep­re­sen­ta­tion Ref­er­ence Group, who held an emer­gency meet­ing on Mon­day to dis­cuss their re­sponse to the leg­is­la­tion. She also sits on the na­tional coun­cil of FairVote Canada.

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