11/08/2016 13:43 EST | Updated 11/09/2017 00:12 EST

P.E.I. electoral reform plebiscite gives hope, angst to federal reformers

OTTAWA — The outcome of a Prince Edward Island plebiscite on electoral reform is giving hope to those who are pushing Canada to adopt a proportional voting system.

But the fact that so few Islanders bothered to vote is simultaneously underscoring the dilemma facing the Trudeau government: is there sufficient interest in electoral reform to justify proceeding at the federal level?

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef have both repeatedly said they won't go ahead without a broad consensus on an alternative to the current first-past-the-post voting system.

Just 36 per cent of P.E.I.'s eligible voters cast ballots in the non-binding provincial plebiscite; of those, 52 per cent voted for a mixed member proportional (MMP) system, while 42.8 per cent supported sticking with the status quo — a result only arrived at after four rounds of voting on a ranked ballot that offered Islanders five different options.

In other words, just over 18 per cent of eligible voters ultimately opted for MMP.

Premier Wade MacLauchlan said Tuesday that the low turnout in a province that boasts the most engaged voters in the country — more than 80 per cent typically vote in elections — means the result can't be considered a clear expression of the will of Islanders.

A spokesman for Monsef declined to offer her opinion on the turnout. But federal officials privately seemed doubtful that a similarly low level of interest nationally would be sufficient to warrant proceeding with something as significant as changing the way Canadians elect their federal government.

But for the NDP and Green party, the P.E.I. result is historic and a big boost to the push for proportional representation nationally, just as members of an all-party committee are poised to try to find a consensus on what voting system should replace FPTP in federal elections. The committee, which is to report by Dec. 1, is scheduled to go behind closed doors Monday for all-day negotiations.

"(Islanders) made some history, there's no other way around that piece, turnout or not," said NDP democratic reform critic and committee member Nathan Cullen.

"The place that birthed Canada, the place where we figured out Canada, is the first place that, I would argue, has figured out the next steps for Canadian democracy."

Similarly, Green party Leader Elizabeth May called the result "encouraging."

"Certainly, it gives a boost to the campaign for PR across Canada."

Both Cullen and May acknowledged that turnout in a national referendum on electoral reform would likely be similar to that in P.E.I.'s plebiscite. But an apparent lack of interest shouldn't be an excuse to do nothing, they said.

Cullen noted that Trudeau's Liberals won a majority of the seats in the Commons with the support of less than 30 per cent of eligible voters, once turnout of just under 70 per cent is taken into account.

Moreover, he argued that the P.E.I. result was "one of the strongest results that you could imagine because the vested interests are so interested in (keeping) the status quo."

Neither the NDP nor Greens support holding a referendum on electoral reform. But the Conservatives have said they won't agree to any change in the voting system unless it is first approved in a referendum.

Conservative democratic reform critic Scott Reid said the P.E.I. plebiscite disproves the notion that a national vote is a sure way to kill any reform proposal. He said it's up to the province to decide whether the turnout was sufficient to legitimize the outcome.

Like May and Cullen, Reid said he can't figure out what Monsef and Trudeau mean when they talk about needing a broad consensus.

"They have multiple ways of collecting information and no clear way of establishing which set of information collection takes paramountcy," he said.

"Is it the town halls the MPs did, is it the town halls that the minister's been doing" or the online consultative process to be launched next month?

Cullen said those who participated in the committee's hearings and MPs' town halls overwhelmingly favoured a proportional voting system but the government seems reluctant to accept that outcome.

Instead, he said it seems to have adopted the principle of "keep consulting until you get the answer you want."