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.