The plebiscite on electoral reform comes down to a pretty simple concept: Either you believe it is time to modernize how we vote or you support the status quo.
The bogeyman used by those who oppose change is any move away from First-past-the-post, the winner take all system used throughout our provincial history, will create a less stable government.
It’s fear mongering that relies on a suspect definition of stable. According to Liberals and Tories stable simply means supporting a system that promotes absolute control over how government spends our money, absolute control over the perks and patronage of power and absolute control over the voices – with very rare exception – heard in the provincial legislature.
Our system is not stable. It is prone to massive swings that result in the decimation of one of the two major parties to the benefit of the other. Our history has shown that 27-0 or 26-1 shellackings are not in the public interest.
Under the ‘stable’ system promoted by the old guard our provincial debt has grown to more than $2.4 billion, and routinely doubles under each administration. We have no capacity to repay. We are leaving that debt to future generations to figure out. The provincial civil service has ballooned in size and cost and yet neither the Liberals or Tories want the public to know who works for government, what they do or how much they are paid.
Under our ‘stable’ system, the governing party doles out patronage rewards. And don’t for a second think that patronage is any less prevalent today than it was two or three decades ago. It’s more upscale now, just walk through the executive offices of the PEI Liquor Control Commission.
Our ‘stable’ system allows MLAs to claim they represent all of their constituents when in fact they do not, at least not all the time. Most MLAs are diligent about representing the interests of constituents on personal matters involving government. But with very few exceptions in our provincial history that constituent support evaporates the minute a Liberal or Tory government demands party loyalty for the policy of the day (think school closures or tax increases) – regardless how it negatively impacts individuals.
Some elected officials, including Liberal Bush Dunville and Tory Stephen Myers, argue the current system ensures local representation.
Both are wrong. The Supreme Court of Canada has ensured the gradual erosion of local representation by mandating that election boundaries be reviewed after every third election, resulting in a decline in the rural voice in the provincial legislature. Proportional representation has the potential to change this trend.
In the 2015 election, MacLauchlan Liberals were handed 18 seats despite winning only 41 per cent of the vote. The Greens and NDP combined for 22 per cent but only managed a single seat.
Traditionalists claim any change will result in more minority governments, as if that is a bad thing. They ignore the reality in countries like Scotland, New Zealand and Germany where proportional representation is working. They also ignore our own fleeting experience with having third party representation in the house. We have provincial kindergarten because Herb Dickieson, as a leader of the NDP and one term MLA, pushed until it was implemented. When our house is represented by more than just Tories and Liberals, as Green Leader Peter Bevan-Baker is once again showing, our legislature becomes less fractious and more productive.
This is not an endorsement of the first past the post plus leader option promoted by the likes of Dr Dickieson and current Liberal cabinet minister Alan McIsaac. Take your lead from the NDP, which stands to benefit more than any other party by its implementation. The NDP rejected the option for what it is: incremental tokenism. It is nothing more than Tories and Liberals effectively patting other parties on the head and saying ‘your time will come, when we decide it is your time.’
It is wrong and symbolic of the issue we face. First-past-the-post offers the perception of stability while allowing government to run roughshod over Islanders. It allows government to put off tough decisions to future generations. It creates the optic of local representation while ensuring party loyalty is paramount.
Our province has not been well served by the ‘stability’ of First-past-the-post. We can do better. We are small enough to lead the nation. Islanders will not suddenly lose access to elected MLAs if we change. Our legislature will not suddenly devolve into an ineffective, bickering arena of self interest anymore than it already is. We may just find that with more women and minorities our legislature becomes reflective of who the Island is today rather than a throwback to the male dominated system created generations ago. We may just find it is possible to govern in a more thoughtful, focussed and less wasteful way.
That’s why I’m voting for PR.
Paul MacNeill is Publisher of Island Press Limited. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org