Electoral reform is all the rage in Canada these days " witness the 2004 report issued by the Law Commission of Canada (Voting Counts: Electoral Reform for Canada). Provincial governments in British Columbia (where a second referendum on electoral reform is slated for some time in 2008), Quebec, Ontario, New Brunswick are also considering changes to our ”œfirst-past-thepost” (FPTP) electoral system, and the last federal parliament also expressed some interest.
However, Canada’s smallest province, Prince Edward Island (PEI), opted against making Canadian political history in late 2005 " that is, by clearly rejecting meaningful electoral reform. Indeed, Islanders sought political refuge in the comfortable status quo, and thus spurned change that was largely foreign and untested anywhere else in the federation.
To be sure, the ”œYes” side received just 36 percent and the ”œNo” camp garnered an impressive 64 percent of the overall vote. Though only one voter in three bothered to turn out, nearly two out of three who did voted ”œNo.”
Curiously, in an interview with PEI’s largest newspaper, the Guardian, Premier Pat Binns inexplicably raised the spectre of holding another plebiscite at some unspecified date. He went on to say opaquely: ”œI don’t think it’s over. I don’t see us going into the next election and fighting it on the firstpast-the-post model, but having said that I still think that this issue is not dead and there will be more discussion on an appropriate model for PEI.”
Given what actually transpired in the November 2005 plebiscite, it is hard to take the words of the premier at face value. It certainly looked as if the entire electoral reform process " from start to finish " was more an exercise in public relations and political symbolism than an honest and forthright effort at purposeful and fundamental electoral reform on PEI.
Still, it was well known that the existing electoral system on PEI often created a government that was unrepresentative of the citizens of Canada’s smallest province. Simply put, the fundamental problem was that the government " as in other provincial jurisdictions " was not wholly reflective of the popular vote. In many instances, the system effectively rewarded the government or winning party with an artificially lopsided legislature. For example, the provincial election in September 2003 showed that the provincial Progressive Conservative Party garnered 54 percent of the popular vote and was rewarded with a disproportionate number of seats in the provincial legislature, 23 out of 27 districts, accounting for some 85 percent of the assembly. By comparison, the provincial Liberal Party collected only 4 seats, or 15 percent of the legislature, while it attracted 43 percent of the votes.
The will of Island voters had been noticeably distorted in four of the last five provincial elections on PEI. Each one turned out to be an artificial landslide, with two elections giving roughly 40 percent of the electorate just a single seat in the legislature " leaving a weak opposition and a poorly equipped government-in-waiting.
In light of this distorted electoral picture, then, how did Islanders go from striking out on a bold course of electoral reform to one that essentially reinforced the political status quo?
Much of it has to do with the process that led to a provincial plebiscite in late 2005, the role of the ”œYes” and ”œNo” committees and the seemingly lastminute intervention of Premier Binns himself. Then there were other factors which explain why Islanders opted overwhelmingly for a ”œNo” verdict. Finally, some general observations are in order about electoral reform on PEI, the future of any such reforms on the Island and the lessons for those provinces presently contemplating such a course of action.
To begin, Premier Binns moved in January of 2003 to create the one-person Commission on Electoral Reform in Prince Edward Island " naming retired PEI chief justice Norman Carruthers as commissioner " ”œto determine the relevance of an alternative electoral system, such as proportional representation, for Prince Edward Island.” This commission was the government’s response to its 2002 Throne Speech, which declared: ”œThe most important and fundamental right of our democracy is the franchise. It is incumbent upon political leadership to ensure that the way in which we elect our representatives continues to be relevant and effective. Therefore, my government will appoint an independent commission to consult on and consider Prince Edward Island’s electoral system and accompanying statute and regulations so that it continues to reflect what Islanders require of their legislature.”
As a result, and after a series of poorly attended public meetings, Commissioner Carruthers presented his final report in December of 2003.
Among other things, it recommended a mixed-member proportional (MMP) system, which would combine the existing FPTP model with a proportional representation (PR) system similar to that used in New Zealand. Additionally, and somewhat more problematical, there would be 21 members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) elected by FPTP and 10 by PR, increasing the number of provincial MLAs by 4.
The Carruthers report was followed up by the Commission on PEI’s Electoral Future, which proposed some minor revisions on Carruthers’ earlier recommendations. More specifically, it endorsed the existing 27-seat legislature " with 17 members being elected under the current (FPTP) system and 10 members being elected from lists of candidates provided by the parties, with the help of two separate ballots.
Although it was rather slow in developing, a fairly robust debate on this electoral reform model began in coffee shops, church halls and the pages of the Guardian.
Both sides marshalled their arguments and statistics, each professing either that the time was ripe for electoral change on PEI " or that PEI was not yet ready for such fundamental reform.
The ”œYes” camp argued that a MMP model would spell the end of any ”œwasted votes” or ”œnegative voting,” by allowing electors to vote for their preferred candidate (on the list ballot) as opposed to the one on the winning side (or to stop some other party from gaining power). They claimed that this model would increase voter turnout, ensure greater representativeness and lead to the election of more women and minorities. They also pointed out that it would produce greater accountability and responsiveness (in part because of likely coalition governments) and introduce more parties into the electoral mix.
In the final days before the plebiscite, the official ”œYes” campaign issued a mail-out brochure urging Islanders to vote for change. According to the handout, ”œMMP makes the voting system more effective, more representative, and more democratic by adding an element of proportional representation. This means the proportion of seats held by a party would closely match the proportion of voters who support it.” It then went on to state that ”œvoters would have more choice,” ”œelection results would be fair rather than distorted,” ”œthe government would always face a real opposition” and, lastly, that ”œthe legislature would better reflect the Island population.”
For its part, the ”œNo” side was just as vocal, engaged and armed with a bevy of convincing arguments. At every turn, it raised questions about the MMP model itself, the precise role of Islandwide list candidates and how the parties would still dominate the electoral process (and selections or ”œappointments” to the party lists). There were other concerns about the d’Hondt formula for apportioning list seats, the potential loss of rural districts and thus rural voices at Province House in Charlottetown and the political uncertainty of unending minority governments (and the inevitable behind-the-scenes horse-trading and compromise that such coalitions would necessitate).
Not to be outdone, the No to the MMP Proposal Coalition issued its own flyer in the dying days of the plebiscite. Among other things, it indicated that ”œthe biggest concern is the reduced value placed on the citizen’s right to vote directly for the candidate of their choice” and that ”œthe present proposal presents more problems than it solves.” It went on to suggest that ”œpolitical parties are given much more power " while voters lose the power to choose,” ”œMMP creates two classes of MLAs " 10 appointed and accountable to political parties and 17 elected and accountable to voters,” ”œMMP would result in minority governments on an on-going basis through the D’Hondt method” and, finally, that ”œit would encourage proliferation of small special interest parties since only 10 (same as list) candidates are required in order to achieve party status.”
Lastly, and certainly not least, the last-minute intervention of Premier Binns himself must be factored into the whole electoral equation. Significantly, the premier (with the solemn blessing of the provincial opposition leader, Robert Ghiz) decided to set the threshold for voter approval at 60 percent (along with a majority of votes in 60 percent of the districts or 16 out of 27 ridings) only one month before the plebiscite date.
By way of historical context, only one election on PEI has ever produced a government that garnered 60 percent of the popular vote. And no previous plebiscite on PEI " including the deeply emotional vote in 1988 on whether to construct a fixed link to New Brunswick " has ever required anything other than a 50-percent-plus-one vote to pass.
In addition, Binns also dispensed with the 2004 official voters’ list (thereby requiring everyone to answer four or five perfunctory questions before exercising their franchise) and reduced the number of customary polling stations (pointing to financial considerations) by 75 percent " leaving some small towns without a place to vote " and creating long lineups at numerous voting locations (where many people simply got tired of waiting and walked off).
Taken together, these changes go some way toward explaining the uncharacteristically low 33 percent voter turnout for the 2005 plebiscite, as compared with an 83 percent turnout on the morrow of a hurricane in the 2003 general election. Islanders normally have the highest voter-participation rates in the country.
Interestingly, Commissioner Carruthers felt so perturbed about these changes that he actually entered the fray himself. In a newspaper interview, he declared that the premier was ”œtinkering with the most important and fundamental right of our democracy " the franchise.” And as if that were not enough, he stated boldly: ”œPersonally, I am of the view that Premier Binns was very illadvised to impose such a limitation on the plebiscite vote. There is no precedent in this province that I am aware of that calls for such a high percentage.”
Clearly, the major political parties (the Liberals and the Progressive Conservatives) did not want this proposal to see the light of day. Indeed, they did everything humanly possible to ensure that it was derailed politically, put out of its misery and unceremoniously buried.
In fact, Binns decided to stay on as PC party leader in late 2005 (after saying openly he would leave public office in 2006 after 10 years in the premier’s chair) and to fight the next election (expected in 2007) because, in part, he believes that he can win under the current electoral model. And Liberal opposition leader Robert Ghiz is convinced that it is his turn to lead the next provincial government " in keeping with PEI’s predictable trend of ushering out the ”œtired” PCs after three terms to be replaced by a ”œrevitalized” Liberal majority government.
Moreover, the premier’s public comments, and those of Ghiz himself, demonstrated a decided coolness toward the proposal. It was painfully obvious that both party caucuses, members of the party establishments and assorted patronage-lovers were dead set against the MMP proposition. Together, they did a terrific job of confusing the electorate, identifying phantom weaknesses in the MMP model and, to be honest, engaging in a campaign of disinformation at times.
Many Islanders were left feeling unsure of what exactly the MMP proposal meant for them or for PEI as a whole. A good portion of them simply prefer the intimate relationship that presently exists with their MLA under the current FPTP system, were leery of the 17-10 split and the prospect of minority governments and had reservations about granting more power to political parties under the second ballot list mechanism (i.e., closed as opposed to open lists).
Additionally, rural areas and communities in the province, which are ineluctably shrinking every year in terms of their population base, were worried about having less of a voice (and a smaller share of the patronage spoils) under the MMP system.
In the end, a sizable portion of Islanders (long wedded to a traditional or parochial political culture) could not bring themselves to embrace change or to overcome the fear of the unknown. And with a little bit of help and fear-mongering from the main political parties and their footsoldiers, it was enough to tip the balance against electoral reform.
On a more positive note, it is possible that the PEI experience at electoral reform could be instructive for those provinces presently considering such a course. One thing became obvious from the very outset: the need for a provincial government to engage early and often in a comprehensive public information campaign so as to educate voters on what their various electoral reform proposals consist of. Unlike PEI, provinces should also stipulate very early in the process what the precise rules of the electoral reform game will be " that is, the threshold for acceptance, voters’ lists, numbers of polling stations and even the requirements for the ”œYes” and ”œNo” campaigns. It may even be advisable for provincial governments to suggest a reasonable time frame for when this same issue " perhaps with a totally revised model " will be revisited.
Equally important, the government in power, irrespective of political stripe, should scrupulously guard against involving itself in the electoral reform process. Members of the government, and especially the political leadership of the parties, should not only refrain from commenting publicly on the process but should also ask their party machineries to disengage entirely from the plebiscite or referendum. If they are going to play any role, they should restrict their involvement to merely getting the electorate out so as to ensure that the final outcome has political legitimacy and credibility.
In sum, and notwithstanding the hopeful comments of Premier Binns, it is highly unlikely that the question of electoral reform on PEI will return in the foreseeable future. Both the definitive ”œNo” vote and the poor voter turnout lend credence to this observation. If the truth be told, the people of PEI are not ready to discard their parochial instincts and to take a leap of faith into the unknown world of electoral reform.