P.E.I. government makes extensive amendments to referendum legislation
New bill eases restrictions on groups wanting to advertise
P.E.I.'s Attorney General tabled extensive amendments Tuesday to a controversial bill meant to set the stage for a referendum on the province's electoral system.
Critics, and particularly the Green party, referred to spending restrictions in the original bill on referendum advertising as "draconian" and questioned whether the bill would withstand a legal challenge under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The amendments to the Electoral System Referendum Act would double individual spending limits from $500 to $1,000. They would also allow groups of individuals to band together to spend up to $10,000 collectively, and remove prohibitions preventing some groups from accepting donations.
Under the amended bill, only groups that receive government funding as designated referendum advertisers would be prevented from raising money.
8 month cap on referendum period
There would also be a designated referendum period of at most eight months. Prior to that, there would be no spending restrictions on groups that meet certain criteria, including that they are non-profit and at least two-thirds of their members are P.E.I. residents.
The bill would also reduce fines for overspending from $10,000 or more to "up to $10,000."
Wording on what the media would be allowed to publish has also been tweaked to allow publishers more free reign to cover the referendum as they see fit. Most notably, wording that stated editorials, columns, interviews and news stories would be considered referendum advertising unless they were produced without payment has been stricken.
The amendments also lay out requirements for a referendum commissioner, appointed by the legislature, to implement public education programs relating to the referendum and the two voting systems to be included — first-past-the-post and mixed member proportional.
Government has pledged to holding what it says would be a binding referendum on electoral reform in conjunction with the next provincial election.
Attorney General Jordan Brown told the media the changes were made in response from feedback from opposition parties, constituents and from the media.
Bill not ready, say PCs
But presented with the changes less than an hour before the daily sitting of the legislature began, opposition parties were initially at a loss as to what to make of them.
"I appreciate what you have incorporated from the ideas that we brought forward in our amendments," said Green Leader Peter Bevan-Baker, "but there are still some serious problems in our opinion. Again, that's based on a 45-minute opportunity to look at this."
"I don't feel that this bill is ready for debate here in the floor of the legislative assembly, with the amount of amendments that [have] come forward," said PC Leader James Aylward.
Aylward asked, not for the first time, that the bill be sent to the province's Special Committee on Democratic Renewal for revision. But government has said it wants to pass the bill in the current sitting of the legislature.