Electoral Reform: An Accurate View of History (Op-Ed)

VotePR12squareCoalition for PR member Marie Burge submitted this op-ed to the Charlottetown Guardian recently. Thanks, Marie!

ELECTORAL REFORM: AN ACCURATE VIEW OF HISTORY

From October 29 to November 7, 2016, Islanders will vote in a plebiscite. The results of the plebiscite will suggest how future PEI governments should be elected. It is a welcome sign that the government is paying for education for us to be well-informed voters. This task was given to Elections PEI. The education seems to be going well.

However, good community education requires an accurate view of PEI history. One important moment in our history was the 2005 plebiscite. It was upsetting to hear the Elections PEI communications director say, “The last time there was a plebiscite (in 2005) there was no real public education…” This comment diminishes the competence and work of a lot of people.

First of all is Premier Pat Binns who had the courage to initiate an electoral reform process in 2003 by mandating retired Chief Justice Norman Carruthers as the one-person commission. In one year Justice Carruthers did a massive research, drawing on knowledge of experts, local, national and international (114 submissions and interviews). He studied experiences of other jurisdictions and concluded that P.E.I. would benefit from a Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) electoral system. Premier Binns accepted this recommendation. In December 2004 the government named an eight-person commission to develop and conduct a public education program on First Past the Post and Mixed Member Proportional electoral systems and to design a plebiscite question. That was the Commission on Prince Edward Island’s Electoral Future, with Leonard Russell, a well-known educator, as chair. This commission implemented an extensive public education program. Its report was accepted by the PEI legislature.

To assess the statement, “(in 2005) there was no real public education”, here are some facts about 2005. The government provided its commission with a significant budget, $148,200. The Commission had regular media releases in all Island publications in French and English. There were kick-off media conferences in May 2005. In June, there was a symposium with national and local experts. A communication firm was hired in July. A television commercial was created and broadcast. An information pamphlet was delivered to most Island households and at events in many communities. The Commission created a website and had a 1-800 line. Twelve public meetings were held and the audio recordings of them were added to the website. There were print and radio messages.

The above refers only to the publicly-funded education program. As well, in 2005, a parallel, non-governmental group was active. The YES on MMP coalition of diverse community groups and individuals formed in early October and carried out the YES Campaign. This coalition raised $35,000 private dollars and hired a co-ordinator, designed “Vote YES” signs and buttons, and 3,000 clear language mail-outs. The coalition did some door-to-door campaigning and organized a number of forums/debates, featuring the Yes and No sides.

The misrepresentation of education efforts in 2005 is important because it tends to cover-up the fact that the PC government changed its tune, came to favour a “No” vote, and undermined the plebiscite process at the eleventh hour by requiring a 60 per cent vote and by having few voting stations opened. They and the Liberal party used backroom tactics to warn voters of “the dangers of MMP,” and that it was too difficult for us to understand.

Now because it’s 2016, we expect government and opposition to take the high road. No more 2005 shenanigans. It seems clear that many Islanders are ready and able for change. We can all help by making sure that all eligible Islanders know the issues and that they vote intelligently in the plebiscite.

– Marie Burge of Mermaid was a member of the YES ON MMP coalition in 2005 and is an active member of the 2016 PEI Coalition for Proportional Representation.

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