Critics cry foul over tough rules for P.E.I. plebiscite on voting reform

By Chris Morris
Published November 26th 2005 in Canadian Press
CHARLOTTETOWN (CP) - Tough rules established by the Prince Edward Island government for a plebiscite on voting reform have prompted some critics to question whether Island politicians really believe in democracy.

Supporters of proportional representation say they are fuming over a decision by Premier Pat Binns and his Conservative government to make it difficult for people who favour a new voting system to win Monday's provincewide plebiscite.

Sixty per cent of Island voters in 60 per cent of the province's electoral districts will have to say "yes" to a proposed proportional representation system before it would be considered by the province.

As well, in a move the Binns government says is designed to save money, there will be 75 per cent fewer polling stations than is normally used for provincial elections.

Critics say it is bitterly ironic that a process aimed at improving the democratic system should be so blatantly manipulated by politicians anxious to preserve the status quo.

"The voting system is the instrument we citizens use to essentially hire and fire politicians," says Larry Gordon of Fair Vote Canada, a citizens lobby group dedicated to voting reform.

"It is a conflict of interest for politicians and governments to make decisions on what voting systems we should be using to essentially create their jobs."

Islanders are being asked to choose between the current first-past-the-post system and a two-ballot, mixed-member proportional representation system.

Observers doubt Islanders will vote for a new system.

"I don't think it's going to win," says Jack McAndrew, an Island newspaper columnist and political commentator.

"As far as I'm concerned, what difference does it make? The politicians all come from the same gene pool no matter what process you use."

Still, voter apathy has never been a problem on P.E.I., where how a person votes often determines what kind of job they get.

Voter turnouts in excess of 80 per cent are the norm during elections in Canada's smallest province. Just over 97,000 people are eligible to vote in the plebiscite.

In the 2003 provincial election, 83 per cent of Island voters made it to polling stations despite howling winds and widespread power outages caused by hurricane Juan.

But the first-past-the-post system has produced several lopsided legislatures in recent years, making it extremely difficult for other political parties to make any headway.

The Conservative and Liberal parties both have reaped rewards under the existing electoral system. They do not seem to mind the lack of third parties and dissenting voices in Charlottetown's historic legislature - the birthplace of Confederation.

Binns is making no apologies for setting high benchmarks on the plebiscite - higher than the traditional 50 plus one that has been accepted in all other Island votes, including a referendum on building a bridge to connect the province to the mainland.

"It's my belief, it's the government's belief, that people should strongly endorse a change for it to take place," Binns says.

"So if people strongly feel change is the right thing, they should express their opinions on plebiscite day."

Leo Broderick, spokesman for the Council of Canadians on P.E.I., has been campaigning for the yes side.

He says the Binns government has put up roadblocks to the plebiscite, including the lack of a voters' list, which means people will have to answer questions and prove their identities when they show up at polling stations.

"They see the legislature as theirs," Broderick says of the Conservative and Liberal parties.

"They give the impression that they own it and other groups, other voices, other political parties will be kept out. It does not serve democracy well."

Gordon says he can't understand why Binns did not learn from the experience of British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell.

British Columbia held a referendum last spring on voting reform, but only 57 per cent of voters backed it, lower than the 60 per cent majority needed for it to become law.

However, while 57 per cent was not enough for voting reform, Campbell's Liberals found themselves re-elected in the last election with 46 per cent of the popular vote.

"Campbell found himself in a political quagmire," Gordon says.

"He was in the embarrassing situation of saying, 'Forty-six per cent of the popular vote is enough to give me complete control of the legislative agenda. But 57 per cent of citizens deciding we should have a new voting system isn't enough'."

As a result of the controversy, British Columbia will have a second referendum on voting reform in 2008.

Meanwhile, other provinces are making plans to consider proportional representation - the system favoured in many European countries.

Under the simplest form of proportional representation, political parties win seats in proportion to the votes cast, which means that a party that wins 30 per cent of the votes would get 30 per cent of the seats.

In the first-past-the-post system, parties that win less than 30 per cent of the vote are sometimes frozen out of the legislature.

In Quebec, the government is proposing to implement a mixed-member proportional system, similar to the form Islanders are considering.

In Ottawa, the New Democratic Party recently renewed its push for proportional representation, under the stewardship of former party leader Ed Broadbent. The party wants a national referendum on the issue.

Ontario as well is moving on the issue. The provincial Liberal government has promised to name a citizens assembly to study versions of proportional representation in at least 80 countries. It's considering a provincial referendum in 2007.

Some facts on Prince Edward Island plebiscite on voting reform to be held Monday:

Eligible Voters: 97,180.

Question: Should Prince Edward Island change to Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system as presented by the Commission on P.E.I.'s Electoral Future? Yes or No.

How MMP Works: 17 representatives would be elected to legislature as they are now - one per district, based on the first-past-the-post system. Another 10 would be elected through second ballot predetermined by political parties.

Those 10 would be used to balance number of seats each party gets to ensure totals reflect popular vote.

Plebiscite Threshold: Sixty per cent of voters must vote yes. Sixty per cent of province's 27 electoral districts must support change.

Current Standings in legislature: 23 Conservatives, four Liberals.