P.E.I. could start wave of electoral reform in Canada, student says
'If anyone has a shot at actually succeeding at implementing proportional representation, it's P.E.I.'
A political science student at University of Cambridge believes P.E.I. could be the start of electoral reform across Canada.
Sean Fleming, a PhD student originally from Newfoundland, has been researching electoral systems for about 10 years as a side project and he believes that small jurisdictions produce poor results with a first-past-the-post system.
"Ideally, first-past-the post should produce a two-party system with a stable government and a strong opposition," Fleming said. "But in practice, and especially in small jurisdictions such as P.E.I. and Newfoundland and Labrador, it often produces one-party rule with no credible opposition whatsoever."
Citing the 2000 P.E.I, election when the Progressive Conservatives managed to get 26 out of 27 seats despite only receiving 58 per cent of the vote.
"The parliamentary system requires a strong opposition that holds the government accountable and provides an alternative to voters, and it's impossible for a one member or two or three member opposition to do its job of keeping the government in check," Fleming said.
Two prominent solutions are proportional representation, where seats are decided based on the share of the vote each party garnered, or mixed-member proportional representation, where voters get two votes, one for their local representative and one for their preferred party at the provincial level. Germany and New Zealand both use the mixed-member proportional system.
"I think proportional representation is a solution because it would ensure that the opposition get a share of the seats that's roughly proportional to its vote share," Fleming said.
He said an effective opposition is necessary to stop the government from making bad decisions. In the long run, minority and coalition governments might become the norm, which he said would be a good thing for smaller provinces.
"It ensures that governments have to cooperate with other parties in order to make legislation and make policy," Fleming said.
As for the critiques of proportional representation, Fleming said in practice, the fears that minority and coalition governments would lead to chaos and instability haven't manifested in New Zealand, where every government since its implementation in 1996 except one has finished their term.
"It's resulted in much more collaborative governments, but it hasn't resulted in instability," Fleming said.
While unsuccessful referendums have been held in provinces across Canada on the subject of electoral reform, Fleming said proponents of proportional representation make the wrong argument.
"Most of the debate focuses on the fairness of the system," Fleming said. "The common argument is that first past the post is unfair because it awards the winning party a disproportionate share of the seats based on its vote share."
"I think the more compelling argument is that first-past-the-post doesn't work. It gives us one or two member oppositions that just can't function."
If the issue of proportional representation takes off across Canada, then it will most likely be because Prince Edward Islanders did something about it.— Sean Fleming
This is a particular problem in small provinces such as P.E.I. but even on a national level, the current Liberal government got less than 40 per cent of the popular vote, but 54 per cent of the seats in the House of Commons. P.E.I. has even seen one party, the Liberals, garner every single seat in the legislature in 1935 with only 58 per cent of the vote.
"We have these lopsided, one-party majority governments that make bad decisions," Fleming said. "And that's the reason to reform the system… it may be unfair but the reason to get rid of first past the post is that it just doesn't work, especially in small jurisdictions."
Islanders voted in a 2016 plebiscite in favour of a mixed-member proportional representation system, but after a voter turnout of only 36.46 per cent, the Liberal government decided not to act on it. Instead, Islanders are potentially headed to the polls in 2019 for both an election and a referendum on electoral reform and Fleming believes P.E.I. could be the impetus for other provinces to follow.
"If anyone has a shot at actually succeeding at implementing proportional representation, it's Prince Edward Island," Fleming said.
"If the issue of proportional representation takes off across Canada, then it will most likely be because Prince Edward Islanders did something about it."
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With files from Laura Chapin