Reports by Committees, 13 May 2016
Source: Legislative Assembly of PEI (pp. 1350-1353)
*Note: Special thanks go to Jordan Brown (Charlottetown-Brighton) for reading Peter’s comments in his absence.
Debate on the Report of the Special Committee on Democratic Renewal
Mr. J. Brown: With that I move the adoption of this report.
I would note, before we carry on, that in the circumstances the Leader of the Third Party did pass notes on to myself which he asked that I read on behalf of him, so I would ask that I be able to do so. Noting that these following comments are attributed to the hon. Leader of the Third Party and not to myself.
Speaker: Carry on.
Mr. J. Brown: Thank you, Mr. Speaker.
Again, this was provided by the hon. Leader of the Third Party. He indicates:
“I would like to take this opportunity to thank all Members of the Legislature for their kind words and concern over the last few weeks. I am particularly grateful to the honorable member for Charlottetown-Brighton for his willingness to present my thoughts today. Most of what follows was written in draft form before I left for Scotland 3 weeks ago, and I apologize for any incoherence, omissions or incomplete thoughts that may be present. I deeply appreciate being able to contribute to this debate, and I look forward to a summer and fall of vigorous debate and widespread engagement with Islanders.
“The white paper contains a section on the history of democratic evolution on PEI from the advent of responsible government in 1851 through the belated enfranchisement of half of the Island population – women – in 1922, and First Nations in 1963, through the end of dual member representation in 1994 which created the Legislature we have today. Along the way Prince Edward Island has been a leader electorally, electing Catherine Callbeck as Canada’s first woman premier in 1993, and a previous plebiscite on proportional representation in 2005. All along the way, the changes reflected evolving conditions on PEI, and the ongoing commitment to craft an electoral system that was suited to our particular circumstances. Almost every aspect of elections on PEI has changed – the number of seats, the people allowed to vote, the number of members per district, the boundaries of those districts, but one thing that has not evolved through over a century and a half is the method by which we elect our representatives.
“The most recent election created another seismic electoral change on PEI, as unprecedented numbers of Islanders voted for parties other than the Liberals and Conservatives – almost a quarter of voters expressed desire for change. This followed a series of elections where there was an anemic opposition – on two occasions being reduced to one member. To me it is clear that the electoral system which has been in place since 1851 is also in need of updating.
“If we look at other countries who have updated their electoral system, or new democracies who have to adopt a brand new democratic system, we see that in the last 70 years almost every one has chosen some form of Proportional Representation. (India would be the exception to that statement, where high levels of illiteracy, and concerns about stability in a developing country meant that they chose FPTP.) Over 80% of all OECD countries use some version of PR and according to the United Nations list of the most livable countries, the top 6 use P.R. We are using an antiquated system which may have been well suited to the 19th century, but has increasingly little relevance to our modern world.
“Before I get into my own assessment of the various options on our proposed plebiscite question, I want to address a concern which has been stated in several places since the release of our report – that Islanders won’t be able to comprehend this vast array of systems and make an informed, intelligent choice, and that voters won’t be able to comprehend a different voting system. But people are not baffled in Belgium (where the first PR system was installed in 1899 when they recognized that the emergence of a third party was going to render the FPTP system obsolete), people are not confused in Croatia, perplexed in Pakistan, rattled in Romania, or stunned in Scotland – all places that use Proportional Representation. Islanders are brighter than some of our political pundits suggest.
“Another general comment, which hasn’t really been given the prominence that I believe it deserves. Many people feel that how we elect our representatives is a trivial matter: that it doesn’t really have any consequence beyond the mechanics of how and where we place our X on a ballot paper once every four years or so. Nothing could be further from the truth. How we elect our representatives has a profound impact on governance at many levels. It not only impacts the number of people from each party, but it colours how decisions are made, how collaboratively or antagonistically various factions in the parliament behave, what diversity of opinion is considered in decision making, and on and on. A bit like a major financial decision that we may make – we buy a new car, for example, and it’s over with the stroke of a pen, but the effect of it impacts our lives every day, money not available for other things, stresses of monthly payments, associated costs of insurance, repairs and gas. The cascade of effects impacts our behaviour for years.
“In an ongoing effort to keep things simple in debating the merits of the various systems before us, I will break them down into two groups – in one group, the systems which will result in a legislature that accurately reflects the voting intentions of Islanders, in the other group, the systems which do not attempt to do that. In our travels across the Island, we heard from hundreds of people. The vast majority of them were advocating for some form of proportional voting system, but some were satisfied with what we have. “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it” was a phrase I heard at least twice. That obviously assumes that things ain’t broke, a supposition with which I don’t agree. Personally, I can see a multitude of ways in which our current system is broken, but paramount is the fact that following an election, the legislature does not reflect the voting intentions of Islanders. Let’s look at the most recent election as an example. We have a solid majority government, holding 67% of the seats, but only 40 % of Islanders voted for them. This situation is, unfortunately, not the exception. It is the rule. Our most recent federal election saw a majority government elected with less that [sic] 40% of the popular vote, and the previous administration was similarly a majority government elected by 39% of the vote. This is not a trivial matter. The core principal of democracy is rule by the majority, but here we have 3 recent examples (and we could look back in history and find hundreds more) where in our legislature we have rule – and absolute, incontestable authority – by the minority. How would Islanders feel if a piece of legislation came before the House which was supported by only 40% of the members, but it passed? That would be rule by the minority over the majority. I have a feeling there would be an outcry. Another acutely detrimental aspect of first-past-the-post is that it can (and often does) result in a legislature with virtually no opposition. Twice in living memory on PEI our official opposition has been reduced to one person – how can that possibly serve democracy well? Most democracies do not endure these sorts of anomalies. Most democracies have an electoral system where the number of seats each party holds in the House accurately and correctly represents their share of the vote. We could call this type of system accurate representation, or correct representation, but it is more commonly known as proportional representation. Of course, if a party were to receive 60% of the vote in a proportional system, they would deserve, and be granted a majority government. However, if a party received only 40% of the vote, they would have 40% of the seats in the House – not enough to form a majority government. In a situation like this, some form of collaboration would be necessary to govern and make decisions. Some people are not fans of minority governments. There is a fear of instability and stasis, of an unworkable situation arising. Firstly, I would like to point out the formidable work done by a particular administration in Canada. Lester Pearson’s government introduced universal health care, student loans, the Canada Pension Plan, the Order of Canada, and the new Canadian flag, all brought in by a Liberal minority government. That doesn’t strike me as an ineffective administration. Another frequently cited concern about minority governments is their instability. Look at Italy and Israel the doomsayers lament. They have elections every year or so: the expense, the chaos, the waste. Not so. There have been fewer elections in Italy than in Canada since 1990. So minority coalitions work, and are stable, and provide good government.
“And while we are dispelling some of the myths about the imagined problems of minority governments, it is also worth pointing out the potential problems of majority governments. One insightful comment I heard during the public engagement process was that our current system has resulted in the ping-pong politics that has ensured that the two old parties will have 100% of the power 50% of the time. Having uncontested power means that a governing party can do whatever it wishes, and when there are few or no checks on authority, abuses of power are more inclined to happen.
“I don’t mean to suggest that if we adopt proportional representation that suddenly we will embark on an era of blissful, problem-free governance. As Winston Churchill famously said, democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried from time to time. No system can overcome the inherent complexities and shortcomings of democracy, but some make things better.
focus on what I think are elements of an excellent electoral system:
“That the legislature reflects the wishes of the electorate
“That it also reflect the diversity of the Island community
“That it promote collaborative behaviour amongst elected member
“That it minimize the opportunities for the abuse of power
“That it be designed for the particular situation on PEI
“Let’s look at each of these characteristics in turn.
“First, that the legislature reflects the wishes of the electorate. A proportional system will do this, but FPTP, Preferential Ballot and FPTP plus leaders do not. If you feel as I do, that accurate, correct, proper, or proportional representation is important, then you should choose either MMP or DMP. If you are OK with rule by the minority over the majority, ineffective opposition and lopsided legislatures, then any of the other options will work fine.
“When it comes to representing a range of opinions, proportional systems have shown to create legislatures with a greater diversity of voices. If you feel as I do, that this is important, then you should choose either MMP or DMP. If you are okay with a legislature dominated by old, white men, then any of the other options will work fine.
“If you prefer a legislature where the members of all sides are encouraged to work together, to seek compromise and collaborate on issues, then you should choose a proportional system. If you are OK with a legislature that is fractious and less constructive than it should be, then any of the other options will work fine.
“If you are concerned about the potential for corruption and abuse of power, and worry about giving 100% of the uncontested authority to one party, then you should choose a proportional system. If you are OK with the status quo, then any of the other options will work fine.
“If you would like a modern system used in virtually all new democracies, and that is custom designed to optimize governance on PEI then you should choose either MMP or DMP. If you are OK with a system designed over 200 years ago and which has been abandoned by almost all democracies, then stick with FPTP.
“To conclude, I want to reiterate my thanks to my colleagues on the Special Committee for their work and for the collaborative, open, and respectful environment in which this important work took place. I hope that we will all continue this invigorating discussion on electoral reform with all Islanders in the lead up to the plebiscite this fall.”
That concludes the hon. Leader of the Third Party’s remarks, Mr. Speaker.
I would like to reiterate and thank all of the members in the gallery that participated in this process, and to thank the hon. Leader’s wife for bringing his remarks here today in what I’m sure is a tough time for their family.
With that, Mr. Speaker, I thank you very much.