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Canadian Discussions on Electoral Reform

Prince Edward Island has been among several Canadian provinces which have carried out major public engagement exercises on electoral change in recent years. These initiatives were sparked by generally similar factors, notably an increasingly mobile and diverse electorate with fewer ties to a particular geographic location or party identity.

As well, the First Past the Post (FPTP) system, rooted in tradition and primarily designed for a two-party state, was seen as poorly suited to a multi-party system. As additional parties emerged and grew, they pointed to perceived flaws of the FPTP system, including lopsided majorities, weak Oppositions, heightened regional tensions and conflict, and under-representation of voices which were outside the mainstream or diffused across the country.

Our newly elected Government has pledged, in the June 2015 Speech from the Throne, to "initiate and support a thorough and comprehensive examination of ways in which to strengthen our electoral system, our representation, and the role and functioning of the Legislative Assembly."

Alienation grew, as more voters, regions, and communities of interest felt disempowered and excluded from elected representation. There was marked decline in trust and confidence in governments, and lower voter turnout, especially among young Canadians. Many citizens were demanding a greater voice in the decisions affecting them.

The mid-1990s into the 2000s were a time of perceived democratic malaise and a search for a better way. These change initiatives – in British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island – not only explored new electoral models, but also often did so in new and more inclusive ways:

  • The reform wave began in Quebec, with the appointment of an Estates General on the Reform of Democratic Institutions (the Béland Commission) in 2002. The Estates General reported in March 2003, recommending a change to a system of regional proportional representation. In December 2004, government introduced a draft bill proposing various reforms including a variant of a proportional representation electoral system. In subsequent processes and consultations, divergent views emerged on the appropriate model, and the initiative was eventually shelved.

  • In January 2003, Prince Edward Island appointed the Honourable Norman Carruthers to examine options for electoral reform, making PEI an early leader in this wave of reform. The process and the ensuring rejection of reform in the 2005 plebiscite have been described above.

  • In 2004, British Columbia established a Citizens' Assembly, a group of 160 people mostly drawn from a randomly generated list of voters from each riding, and gave the Assembly a year and a budget of over $5 million to do their work. The new system recommended by this process (the “Single Transferable Vote”) almost succeeded in winning the required 'supermajority' of public support. It won 57% – but not the needed 60% – of the provincial vote, and gained majority support in 77 of the 79 ridings. A subsequent reworking of the model and a second referendumin 2009 fell well below these levels of support, winning only 39% support province-wide and seven of 85 electoral districts.

  • During 2004, New Brunswick's Commission on Legislative Democracy studied and consulted the public on options for electoral reform, ultimately recommending a change to a mixed proportional representation approach. The then government committed to take the proposal to the public via a referendum, but following a change of government in 2006, this did not occur.

  • In October 2003, Ontario established the Democratic Renewal Secretariat within the Office of the Attorney General, with a mandate to examine ways to strengthen democracy. Initiatives included a move to fixed election dates, increased disclosure of campaign donations, and, in late 2004, appointment of a Citizens' Assembly to examine electoral reform options. In May 2007, the Assembly reported, recommending a move to a mixed proportional representation system. The recommendation went to a referendum in conjunction with the October 2007 provincial election, and was decisively defeated, gaining 37% support compared to 63% for the existing FPTP system.

  • During 2003 and 2004, the Law Commission of Canada carried out a major study and public engagement effort to explore the case for electoral reform and to propose options, ultimately leading to a recommendation for a mixed member proportional system.

All of these processes concluded that the current FPTP system offered the fewest strengths, and most recommended a mixed member proportional system as providing the best balance of benefits. Where processes were prolonged, they became vulnerable to changes in government or priorities. However, regardless of duration, in the three provinces where the process was completed and a new system was submitted to the electorate in a referendum – Prince Edward Island, British Columbia, and Ontario – 60% or more of those who voted ultimately opted to retain the existing system.

Despite these relatively recent outcomes, electoral reform is once more a key topic of political discourse. Again, Prince Edward Island is a leader, with the Throne Speech's commitment to examine electoral reform, and the release of this White Paper. Since Prince Edward Island’s Throne Speech on June 4 2015, the province of Alberta has also committed to examine electoral reform, and the Liberal Party of Canada has made it a core part of its platform for the coming federal election campaign. The New Democratic Party, meanwhile, has long been a proponent of electoral reform. In Ontario, the road is clear for its cities and towns to move to a preferential ballot system that would enable voters to rank their choices – ensuring that every councillor is elected with a majority of voter support.

With the re-emergence of public discussion around these reform initiatives, comment has emerged in the media on possible reasons for the failure of past attempts. According to Andrew Coyne of the National Post, “The biggest impediment to reform, where it has been attempted, has been the fear of the unknown – the public’s instinctive attachment, when forced to choose, to the status quo, as against some other system that, whatever frustrations they may have with the present system, can always be made out to be something worse: risky, untried, foreign.” More simply, Conrad Yakabuski of the Globe and Mail recently opined that electoral reform excites “earnest young academics and policy wonks who think our democracy is broken. But as attempts at electoral reform in a few provinces have now shown, voters don’t generally trust a bunch of elites to fix it.”

These opinions may overstate the role played by fear and mistrust in defeating past efforts at reform. Nonetheless, it is fair to say that reform is most likely to win support when it is grounded in the history, values, needs, and circumstances of its society. As noted by Chief Elections Officer Merrill Wigginton in his 2002 Report on Proportional Representation, “...each and every country using Proportional Representation (PR) uses a system particular to that country. In fact, if there are 124 countries throughout the world using PR then there appears to be at least 120 different systems of PR.”

It is clear that changes to such a fundamental element of democracy cannot simply be transplanted in Prince Edward Island and expected to take root. In effect, our efforts must be grown from seed here: our reforms must be made in Prince Edward Island, by Islanders, and for Islanders. We have a long and proud history of electoral evolution upon which we can draw.

Accordingly, the following section sets puts forward directions for electoral change that build on our past, achieve progress on important issues facing us today, and enable further change and renewal in the longer term.

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