PEI·PEI Votes

Hundreds debate electoral reform at CBC public forum

For Islanders wanting to learn more about P.E.I.'s current voting system, first past the post, and the mixed member proportional voting system, CBC P.E.I. hosted a public forum Thursday night in Charlottetown.

'Yes' and 'no' sides on referendum weigh in

The panel at the public forum included, left to right, John Barrett of No What to Vote, Brenda Oslawsky with Vote Yes P.E.I. and Gerard Mitchell, P.E.I.'s referendum commissioner. (Brian McInnis/CBC)

Changing the way P.E.I. votes could either "slow things down" or would bring about a "modern, fair voting system" depending on who you speak to.

The forum, held at Stonepark Intermediate School in Charlottetown Thursday night, saw 300 people attending — including current and former politicians, advocates on both sides and people who hadn't yet decided how they were planning to vote.

The two options in the upcoming referendum on electoral reform were discussed, debated and picked apart at a public forum held by CBC P.E.I. Thursday.

The referendum will be held Tuesday, April 23, 2019, in conjunction with the provincial election, and will ask voters "Should Prince Edward Island change its voting system to a mixed member proportional voting system?"

Those who choose "yes" will be voting for mixed member proportional (MMP), a form of proportional representation, and those who choose "no" will be voting to keep the current first-past-the-post voting system.

The potential for minority governments

Brenda Oslawsky with Vote Yes P.E.I. argued that a proportional legislature would force parties to work together by giving more parties seats. "We create the consensus-style government that many on the Island say they want," she said. "No one party has the power."

Brenda Oslawsky with Vote Yes P.E.I. (Brian McInnis/CBC)

She pointed out P.E.I. has a history of "lopsided majorities" with an opposition of one or two members, something she said doesn't serve voters.

John Barrett, with No What to Vote, disagreed with her stance, saying MMP would be "almost guarantee of minority governments."

John Barrett, spokesperson for No What to Vote, says its campaign is encouraging people to learn more — but not to get swept up in the idea of change. (Brian McInnis/CBC)

"There's actually the temptation that there'll be more backroom work and that parties who maybe received most of the seats will be foregoing some of the policies and principles that got them elected in the first place in order to be able to keep their coalition together," he said.

Confusion and complication

Some members of the audience raised concerns about signs and flyers from the No What to Vote campaign that encourage people "If you don't know, vote no."

Audience member Betty Wilcox asked Barrett to explain and justify that campaign message.

Some audience members, like Betty Wilcox, raised concerns about signs and flyers from the No What to Vote campaign that encourage people "If you don't know, vote no." (Al MacCormick/CBC)

"To say to someone just because you don't understand fully what MMP is all about, so stick with the old status quo, is very irresponsible, it's sort of like the yes side saying, 'If you need to take a guess, vote yes.'" 

Barrett said the campaign is encouraging people to learn more — but not to get swept up in the idea of change.

Gerard Mitchell, P.E.I.'s referendum commissioner said the math behind MMP shouldn't be a deterrent to voters.

Gerard Mitchell, P.E.I.'s referendum commissioner said the math behind MMP shouldn't be a deterrent to voters. (Brian McInnis/CBC)

"They shouldn't be bogged down by that at all, anymore than anyone can drive a car and enjoy the car. They don't have to be the mechanic," he said.

"It's simple. Forty per cent of the vote should equal forty percent of the seats. If an Islander casts a ballot, they should elect somebody with that ballot," said Oslawsky.

"Confusing and complicated really just describes the results of our current system," she added.

Rural representation

One audience member from Western P.E.I. spoke about the potential school closures in 2017 as an example of when first-past-the-post worked well, especially for rural communities in his area.

Hundreds of people gathered at Stonepark Intermediate School to ask questions from both sides of the vote and weigh in on the referendum debate. (Brian McInnis/CBC)

Jason Ramsey, with We the West, said his group was able to successfully lobby MLAs to reverse a decision to close a local school — something he worries wouldn't be able to happen under MMP.

"When we take that same model and look at the MMP we would only have about two and a half MLAs to try and attempt to hear our voice," Ramsey said.

He also expressed concerns that MMP could lead to fewer representatives for rural parts of P.E.I., specifically for the second ballot.

Jason Ramsey, with We the West, says his group was able to successfully lobby MLAs to reverse a decision to close a local school — something he worries wouldn't be able to happen under MMP. (Al MacCormick/CBC)

"We're very nervous as a rural community, during election times people don't run an election not to win and it would be common sense that you would have list seats from more populated urban areas."

However, Oslawsky said she thinks with MMP this entire situation could have possibly been avoided in the first place.

"I actually often wonder if the whole issue of school closures would have come up if there had been a coalition government. Then I think it wouldn't have been one party who was putting that particular decision on the population and having to rely on a lot of public protests."

Will it be enforced?

Others had questions about whether or not the referendum vote was binding, and how much this decision will matter in the days ahead.

According to P.E.I.'s Referendum Act the government is committed to putting forward legislation to put an MMP system in place, but Mitchell said a new government could change that.

"If the legislature can make a law, the legislature can change a law," he said, explaining a future government won't be bound to follow the results of the referendum.

"It really doesn't give any power to the people, I mean it just lets our voice be heard, however it doesn't enforce any real change if the governing party has no interest in pushing through the legislation," said audience member, Trevor Matheson.

Trevor Matheson had concerns about whether or not the referendum decision would be enforced by government. (Al MacCormick/CBC)

But Mitchell said there will be political pressure on whatever government is elected to act if there is a vote for change. "Let's put it this way, if the yes side were to win the referendum vote it would be a very difficult political position for a party to take and not honour that vote after such a result." 

Watch the full forum

More P.E.I. news

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