CHARLOTTETOWN – A referendum law that could see the cradle of Confederation become the birthplace of proportional representation passed Tuesday, more than a year after Justin Trudeau struck the option from potential national reforms.
P.E.I. legislators approved the Electoral System Referendum Act on Tuesday evening, laying out what Attorney General Jordan Brown describes as a “fair choice” that will “determine the electoral future of the province.”
The question in the bill — “Should Prince Edward Island change its voting system to a mixed member proportional voting system?” — may also boost the system’s national exposure, alongside British Columbia’s preparations for a mail-in referendum on the issue this fall.
The Island vote poses a simple “Yes” or “No” option, with political scientists predicting a tight battle over the outcome.
Proponents are arguing P.E.I. is fertile ground for an early win for the system, depending on when a provincial election is held.
One key argument is small jurisdictions like P.E.I. — where one of two parties often holds a lop-sided majority — don’t have sufficient checks on the government.
“I think our electoral system is an 18th century system and we need to bring it into the 21st century,” says Leo Cheverie, an advocate for a “Yes” vote.
However, opposition groups are now starting to form with sharply differing views.
Opponents like Dr. Gary Morgan, a veterinarian in Mill River, P.E.I., says he fears his province will become a “battlefield and bellwether for people who want this electoral reform for regions in Canada.”
“It’s a threat to rural voice in Prince Edward Island … in western P.E.I., we have five members representing us in the legislature and that would be down to two.”
A “No” vote would mean the continuation of 27 legislature seats chosen by the first-past-the-post method, while a “Yes” creates a system of voters choosing 18 legislators in redrawn electoral districts and also casting province-wide ballots for nine others from lists parties create.
The “list” seats would be assigned proportionately based on the popular vote each party received on the second part of the ballots.
Under the terms of the referendum bill voted on Tuesday, members of the legislature must still briefly reconvene to approve a referendum commissioner. The bill says a victory for the “Yes” side will require a majority of votes cast in the referendum ballot in at least 60 per cent of the electoral districts.
Mixed member proportional representation won a majority of the votes in a 2016 plebiscite on the Island, but Liberal Premier Wade MacLauchlan set the results aside due to a low turnout, promising he’d offer another referendum in the next general election.
Political scientist Don Desserud says it’s too early to predict an outcome in Round 2.
“The polling numbers are pretty evenly split … so it’s going to be interesting to see in an actual election how that plays out,” said the University of Prince Edward Island professor.
Cheverie is already working behind the scenes, and predicts much of the campaign will occur through one-on-one chats among Islanders.
The P.E.I. Proportional Representation Network website is using grassroots organizing methods, inviting participants to “share ideas,” and “if other citizens think it’s a good idea, they will join you and make it happen,” through online chat groups.
“We’re in a new phase where we’re trying to have more people from bottom up taking action,” he said.
Marcia Carroll, director of the P.E.I. Council of People with Disabilities, says she’s returning to the campaign in hopes of bringing people with disabilities into politics.
“This has stirred something political in me deeper than I realized I had,” said Carroll. “We’re ready to go again … that’s the way we work. We don’t give up.”
However, Desserud says the “No” side has the quiet support of the majority Liberal and Conservative politicians on the Island, and the emergence of Morgan’s group is a sign the opposing forces are marshalling.
Morgan, a former Progressive Conservative candidate in the 1990s in western P.E.I., says he expects to form alliances with urban voters who object to voting for a candidate not actually based in their riding.
“I don’t see the connection between the at-large member of the legislature and democracy,” he said.
Desserud also says that the campaign structure created by the Liberals in the referendum bill has helped level the playing field, by restricting off-Island donations, keeping individual donations to $1,000, and setting up public funding for both sides to draw on for advertising.
“I’m watching this with fascination to see what they (the Liberals) are doing … Are they just very, very confident that when the ‘No’ supporters get organized by a regular election campaign that this will kill it?” says the professor.
Brown says the referendum bill — and the governing Liberals — are unbiased.
“I have looked at all the different systems. They all have their pros and cons. Whatever Islanders want I’m more than fine with,” he said.
Restrictions on outside donations and the role of provincial politicians are quite reasonable, he adds.
“A fulsome debate should be enabled through a system that both promotes the sharing of ideas and education … and regulates that same process so that no wealthy or outside individual can disproportionately sway the will of the voters,” he said.
James Aylward, the leader of the Tory opposition, said in an interview he is also staying neutral in the vote.
“I’m not going to state my preference one way or the other,” he said. “I don’t think it should be the responsibility of elected members of the legislature to push their will on the electorate.”
Peter Bevan-Baker, leader of the Green Party, said he voted against the referendum bill based on its lack of public consultation, but added, “it’s been improved immensely from its original draft.”
Bevan-Baker said he suspects the government’s willingness to sit through a long session to pass the bill is a sign they’re holding open the option of a fall election, with the referendum on the ballot.
“Perhaps we will be making a little bit of history,” he says.
Trudeau had promised to abolish the first-past-the-post federal voting system during the 2015 election, but later abandoned the plan. The prime minister argued that consultations across the country revealed that Canadians were not clamouring for change.
In B.C., a campaign asking voters whether they want to switch to proportional representation or keep the first-past-the-post system will start on July 1, with voting by mail-in ballot running from Oct. 22 to Nov. 30.
— By Michael Tutton in Halifax