P.E.I. Green Party Offers Feds A Stern Warning On Electoral Reform

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The leader of the P.E.I. Green party is expected to stand in the legislature Tuesday to rebuke the provincial government — and offer a warning to the Trudeau Liberals on democratic reform.

The P.E.I. government has decided not to honour this month's provincial plebiscite on electoral reform, in which only 36 per cent of eligible voters took part. Premier Wade MacLauchlan has said it was debatable whether the result reflected the will of Islanders, and announced another vote on reform will be held alongside the 2019 provincial election.

That's not good enough for Peter Bevan-Baker, the legislature's first and only Green member, who has fought for more than 20 years to overhaul the traditional first-past-the-post system.

"It's an effort to avoid dealing with this in an honourable and democratic way,'' he said in an interview. "It's a denial of democracy ... Rather than act on the (plebiscite), and do the honourable thing, it's getting kicked down the road.''

peter bevan baker
Prince Edward Island Green Leader Peter Bevan-Baker speaks during a televised debate in Summerside, P.E.I., on April 27, 2015.

The premier insisted the process has been democratic, and he stressed that pairing the next vote with a general election will ensure a larger turnout.

"We're being democratic in going forward from a plebiscite to get a definitive answer,'' he said Monday. "You have to bring people along. This is a big change in our electoral system ... We're looking to the people to give a clear answer to a clear question.''

Bevan-Baker, a dentist, was elected to the legislature in 2015 — his tenth attempt at elected office.

"It's a denial of democracy."

He said there is an important lesson for the federal government to learn from the P.E.I. example, as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pushes ahead with his own plan for democratic reform.

Voters on the Island have made it clear there is a "latent dismay'' with conventional politics, he said. That means the extended honeymoon the federal Liberals have enjoyed since taking power more than a year ago is probably coming to an end, he added.

"The federal Liberals should look at what happened here and be rather concerned that this ongoing apparent level of support ... might be very wide but just an inch deep ... People are hungry for change.''

Low turnout a major issue

The low P.E.I. turnout was to be expected, given that all but one of the previous eight plebiscites on the Island — most of which dealt with prohibition — produced a similarly lacklustre turnout, he said. Participation jumped to 65 per cent in 1988 when a plebiscite was held on whether to build a bridge to the mainland.

"To suggest that this is not a representative sample ... is just ludicrous,'' Bevan-Baker said, adding that reputable opinion surveys on the Island are typically based on much smaller samples.

MacLauchlan disagreed.

"We need to do this the right way (and) that requires a more definitive endorsement from the people than we now have,'' he said. "That said ... there is an appetite for change.''

The Green leader said even though results from all of the earlier plebiscites were acted on by the government of the day, the latest vote is being ignored because it produced an unexpected and unwanted result for the Liberals.

"Even right up until the votes were counted and announced, our premier couldn't imagine that Islanders would be bold enough to actually vote for something radically different,'' he said.

wade maclauchlan
Prince Edward Island Premier Wade MacLauchlan fields a question at a meeting of the Council of Atlantic Premiers in Annapolis Royal, N.S. on May 16, 2016.

The plebiscite used a preferential ballot system that offered voters five options to rank in order of preference. In the end, the mixed-member proportional representation system garnered more than 52 per cent of the votes, once the votes for the other options were redistributed. The first-past-the-post system received close to 43 per cent of votes in the final round.

The mixed-member system, which is used in New Zealand, is a hybrid that combines proportional representation with first-past-the-post. There's a mix of members elected under the old system and others chosen from party lists, with each party's share of those seats reflecting its share of the popular vote.

In the legislative debate that followed the plebiscite, Liberal members were quick to highlight the perceived flaws of proportional representation.

"The campaign to demonize a proportional system ... has already started,'' Bevan-Baker said.

Peter McKenna, chairman of the political science department at the University of Prince Edward Island, said he shares the premier's view that the low voter turnout made for a dubious result.

"You're talking about fundamentally altering the electoral system,'' he said. "In order to do that you've got to have a substantial threshold of the public that needs to buy into that ... It's about legitimacy.''

McKenna said it was a mistake for the government not to set a minimum threshold for action, which has left the Liberals open to criticism from those who say 36 per cent voter turnout was more than enough.

"It's ironic that they would hang their argument on something that they've pilloried for decades."

Still, the professor said he can't understand why Bevan-Baker and other supporters of proportional representation are calling for change based on a minority of eligible voters endorsing major change.

"It's ironic that they would hang their argument on something that they've pilloried for decades,'' he said.

Bevan-Baker was also critical of MacLauchlan's decision to announce that the vote in 2019 will be between mixed-member proportional representation and another electoral system, though he has declined to say what that system will be.

"We don't know what the second option is,'' he said, noting that the government has promised a clear question on the matter. "There's so much that is unclear about this question that to put forward this pretence is quite awful.''

MacLauchlan said public consultations will be held to determine what the second option will be.

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