PEI·Analysis

Plebiscite results give rise to new political power

The Honour the Vote movement seems to be wielding political power where before there was seemingly little or none.

Island politicians feel pressure from electorate to honour plebiscite results

Members of the PEI Coalition for Proportional Representation (including Green Party leader Peter Bevan-Baker, centre) celebrate the news that mixed-member proportional was selected in a provincial plebiscite on electoral reform on Nov. 7, 2016. (Kerry Campbell/CBC)

The night the results of P.E.I.'s plebiscite on electoral reform were released, I was covering supporters of the P.E.I. Coalition for Proportional Representation at the pub in the basement of the Murphy Community Centre, next to the bowling alley.

If there were other plebiscite-night gatherings for supporters of other electoral models, this was the only function to which the media had been invited.

When it was announced mixed-member proportional had emerged as the winner, the cry that arose from the roughly 30 people gathered there suggested to me they were as surprised as anyone that the model so soundly rejected by Islanders 11 years previously had just come out on top.

That very night, Premier Wade MacLauchlan began casting doubt on the results based on the level of voter turnout: just 36.5 per cent.

But as the MacLauchlan government has begun laying out its plan for dealing with the plebiscite result (by holding a binding referendum as part of the 2019 election), the movement supporting proportional representation has morphed into something else.

#HonourtheVote

The Honour the Vote movement seems to be wielding political power where before there was seemingly little or none.

It's not just a movement of the NDP and Green parties, who both support PR. It has proponents from all political parties, including a number of former Liberal MLAs. But it goes far beyond party politics.

The opinion pages of the Charlottetown Guardian continue to be filled with letters calling on government to honour the vote.

Social media feeds brim with stories and memes. MLAs are being confronted by constituents on Twitter and Facebook calling on them to #HonourtheVote.

Status of Women, UPSE both call for electoral change

The P.E.I. Advisory Council on the Status of Women, which actively supported MMP and the PR campaign, wrote to the Minister for the Status of Women, Paula Biggar, on the opening day of the fall sitting of the legislature, asking her to honour the results of the plebiscite.

That evening she told the House she would not support a change to the electoral system.

I'm left wondering whether this is just as much about frustration with governments not fulfilling promises as it is with a desire for electoral reform.- Don Desserud, UPEI political science professor

Biggar herself championed another electoral model during the plebiscite, preferential balloting.

At its AGM on the weekend, the P.E.I. Union of Public Sector Employees, representing 5,000 Island workers mostly in the civil service, passed an emergency resolution to lobby government to switch to a mixed-member proportional model for the next election.

UPEI political science professor Don Desserud thinks the issue has grown beyond preference for one electoral model over another.

"The decision to link the vote to the next provincial election, rather than implement the results of the plebiscite, seems to have struck a nerve," he said.

"I'm left wondering whether this is just as much about frustration with governments not fulfilling promises as it is with a desire for electoral reform."

Pressure revealed in House debate

In the first week of the fall sitting of the P.E.I. legislature, there was evidence Liberal MLAs and the premier were feeling the political pressure.

The Minister of Workforce and Advanced Learning, Richard Brown — waving his arm — refused to answer a series of questions on the plebiscite results from his district on the grounds the questions weren't related to his portfolio.

Premier Wade MacLauchlan in debate in the P.E.I. Legislature, Friday, Nov. 18, 2016. (CBC)

The Speaker later ruled the questions were in order and Brown should have answered them.

Then Premier Wade MacLauchlan raised his voice in the House, and pointed his finger at the leader of the Green Party, Peter Bevan-Baker, accusing him of bringing the House into disrepute over critical comments the Green leader made in the media regarding government's response to the plebiscite.

MLAs got us this far

Whatever potentially difficult political juncture this debate may have arrived at for Island politicians, they're the ones who pointed the way here. In fact in modern Canadian history no consideration of electoral reform has been so closely guided by the hands of elected politicians.

The debate over electoral reform has landed back in the P.E.I. Legislature. (Kerry Campbell/CBC)

When Ontario and B.C. (the latter of which did it twice) considered electoral reform, those provinces struck assemblies of ordinary citizens to consider alternatives to the status quo.

When P.E.I. went down this road more than a decade ago, two independent commissions were struck: one headed by a retired justice, another by a retired school principal.

This time there was a White Paper delivered by the premier, which was taken up by a committee of five freshly-elected MLAs appointed by him.

The committee's question was put to the people. The people responded. Now it's government's turn once again.

Many of the people have made it clear: they're watching. And it's an issue that matters to them.

About the Author

Kerry Campbell

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Kerry Campbell is the provincial affairs reporter for CBC P.E.I., covering politics and the provincial legislature. kerry.campbell@cbc.ca

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.