Motion moved by Hon. Wade MacLauchlan to the General Assembly
Mr. Speaker. I am honoured to rise as the mover of the motion.
As we take up consideration of this Motion, Mr. Speaker, I invite all members of this House to view ourselves as Stewards of democracy – a healthy democracy.
We are stewards of the historical path that our province has followed since for our province achieved responsible government in 1851. Over the course of more than a century and a half, we have seen continuing milestones of democratic renewal.
It was not until 1966 that Prince Edward Island is said to achieve universal suffrage.
It was in that election that we moved beyond votes tied to property-ownership and that was the first election in which aboriginal people had the right to vote.
By the 1970 election, the voting age was lowered Islanders aged 18 to 21 to vote the first time. PEI women first had the franchise in 1922, following years of advocacy and struggle.
By the 1996 election, our Province moved to single-member constituencies, responding to a challenge that found our province did not meet constitutional standards of representation-by-population and ending the last vestiges of religious denomination as a factor in the selection of candidates.
Mr. Speaker, each of the numerous breakthroughs that has been achieved in our province’s democratic evolution has been made effective through action by this Legislative Assembly, in our role as lawmakers and as stewards of democratic renewal in our province.
In July of 2015, I tabled in this Assembly a White Paper on Democratic Renewal, the Foreword of which included the following paragraph:
“With two decades having passed since the electoral reforms of 1994 and with a legal requirement that electoral boundaries be redrawn before the next provincial election, it is timely for Prince Edward Islanders to engage in a further and historic renewal of our democratic institutions.”
It went on to say: “The White Paper invites all Islanders to work together as we build on our traditions and context to put Prince Edward Island on the map for our democratic processes and rates of participation.”
Mr. Speaker, on the same day that the White Paper was tabled, this Assembly named a Special Committee on Democratic Renewal with representatives from all three parties.
The Special Committee met, consulted widely and deliberated during the fall of 2015 and the winter of 2016, tabling two reports that were unanimously adopted by this Assembly.
That work and the recommendations of the Special Committee led to the conduct of our recent plebiscite.
The results of the plebiscite, including the details provided in the Interim Report of the Chief Electoral Officer, set the stage for our return for the fall sitting of the Legislative Assembly on Tuesday of this week.
Mr. Speaker, as we consider the historical path that brings us to debate today’s motion, I invite colleagues to reflect on the longer historical path, the one that extends into the future.
We are not here to deal with a single event or a single point in time. We are not here to “put something behind us.”
Our province has reached this point in our democratic evolution through struggle, discernment and foresight. Breakthroughs or new milestones in democratic renewal don’t happen all at once, and they tend to long-lasting.
Our responsibilities today follow a path that reaches back to 1851, and they extend into the future.
We want future generations of Prince Edward Islanders to look back on this moment in our history, at this point in our democratic evolution, and say:
“We understand why they did that.” We want future generations to feel that what we do today contributes to the strength of the democracy that they enjoy, and the confidence that they have in how we’ve done our part when given the chance.
Mr. Speaker, on Tuesday of this week, we returned for the fall sitting of our Legislative Assembly. We all came back with anticipation regarding how the Assembly would respond to the plebiscite results.
As a first order of business by Government, I made a Ministerial Statement indicating that Government would introduce a motion responsive to the plebiscite.
In that statement, I said: “We will, as a government, be tabling a motion to initiate debate. In this, we are taking careful consideration of how Islanders have spoken during the plebiscite and how we can make our representative democracy on Prince Edward Island even stronger.”
Mr. Speaker, the question of how Prince Edward Islanders choose the members of this Assembly will always be in front of us. This is not a single decision. What we do in response to this motion belongs to future generations and to the future standards and health of our democracy.
Mr. Speaker, Prince Edward Islanders understand the value of a vote; the value of their vote. What’s more, Prince Edward Islanders like to vote. We view voting with enthusiasm. In cultural terms, voting and politics rank right up there with the weather as topics of popular interest.
Mr. Speaker, this brings me to the question of how we as legislators are called to deal with the fact that the recent plebiscite on democratic renewal attracted a voter turnout of 36.45 per cent.
This is a serious question. And it calls for a more sophisticated and honest consideration than to simply accuse those who would ask it of trying to count non-votes, as the Leader of the Third Party asserted in his brief remarks on Tuesday evening.
The Special Committee on Democratic Renewal, while declining to recommend a specific threshold for voter participation, expressed its belief that “the outcome of a plebiscite must be considered in concert with voter turnout.”
I trust Mr. Speaker that this is a position still adhered to by the members of the Special Committee and indeed, by all of us in this House who unanimously adopted the Committee’s report.
The Special Committee was clearly focused on the question of voter turnout. With a view to encouraging and facilitating the highest possible voter participation, the Committee recommended that the plebiscite be conducted over a ten-day period, using on-line and telephone voting for the first time in PEI history, together with two days of in-person voting. Therefore, Mr. Speaker, when we as legislators called this plebiscite, voter turnout was a central preoccupation. I might even say a paramount consideration. We wanted, in the words of the Special Committee’s April 2016 report, “…a clear expression of the will of the population of Prince Edward Island.”
Do we have “a clear expression of the will of the population of Prince Edward Island”?
In answering that question, Mr. Speaker, I do not believe we are talking about a simple mathematical or numerical calculation. We are talking about a clear expression of the will of the population of Prince Edward Island in relation to a fundamental aspect of our democracy ; about something that Prince Edward Islanders generally like to do, with enthusiasm, and that they care deeply about is casting their vote and choosing their legislators.
With respect, Mr. Speaker, it is off the mark to draw comparisons to levels of voter participation in a provincial by-election, or a municipal election, or an Ontario general election.
The results of a by-election can be reversed the next time the voters go to the polls. When we make a fundamental change to our democracy, we are making a change for the long-term.
Neither, Mr. Speaker, is it especially helpful to reach back 90 years for comparisons to a plebiscite on temperance or prohibition. This province had eight plebiscites on prohibition between 1878 and 1948. However, intoxicating or sobering those plebiscites may have been in their day, it does not advance our consideration of a fundamental change to our democratic system to reach back to the 1920s for a mathematical solution or a political argument.
Mr. Speaker, the question of voter turnout in the plebiscite cannot be looked at in isolation. We must acknowledge that, notwithstanding the fine work of the Special Committee, the considerable efforts of Elections PEI, and the ardent advocacy of the Coalition for Proportional Representation, there were many Prince Edward Islanders who were left with unanswered questions, notably:
Why are we doing this?
How does this or that option, among the five presented on the ballot, actually work?
How does a ranked ballot work? What is going to happen with the results of the plebiscite?
If there is a member who can stand in this assembly and say that these were not questions on the minds of a good number of Prince Edward Islanders, some who may have voted and some who opted not to vote, then you are not talking to your constituents.
In saying this Mr Speaker, I am not faulting the plebiscite or the many good people who contributed to this exercise in democracy. I was a prime contributor myself, as the author of the White Paper on Democratic Renewal that got this process started. Neither am I dismissing or failing to honour the results of the plebiscite.
Nevertheless, Mr. Speaker, I believe that any reasonable and well-informed person would agree that we have an imperfect result. To say that is not an admission of failure. It’s a recognition that we can do better. How can we do better, Mr. Speaker?
First, we can turn away from a ranked or preferential ballot to a simple “A or B” choice. This is something that Prince Edward Islanders understand.
Second, we can combine the vote with the next general election, thereby guaranteeing a higher level of voter turnout and participation.
Third, we can mandate that this will be a binding referendum, thereby clearing up the question, “What does this mean?”
Fourth, we can give ourselves and the people time to become further engaged and informed on the choices, two choices, and the implications. Let’s admit it. This morning, we probably have a higher level of engagement about democratic renewal on PEI than was the case at any time during the plebiscite or the lead-up to it.
And let’s also admit that we still have a ways to go, in terms of engagement, clarification and education, before we will be able to say with confidence that we have “..a clear expression of the will of the population of Prince Edward Island.” That is going to take time and attention. It is going to require a healthy, constructive and respectful exercise of reflection, discernment, education and dialogue.
Mr. Speaker, those are high goals, but we know they are achievable. That is precisely what this motion proposes to do. Whatever the particular outcome, our sense of community and our commitment to democratic renewal will come out stronger.
Let me come to the question of what this means to the 36.45 per cent of the people who did participate in the plebiscite, and to the 19,418 people who voted in favour of MMP. Further, what does it mean in terms of the value of the plebiscite as an historic event in our democratic evolution on Prince Edward Island?
First and foremost, MMP will be on the referendum ballot, thereby confirming the value of coming out ahead on the plebiscite’s preferential ballot.
Second, and this is not insignificant, the referendum will conducted in a new climate.
Prince Edward Islanders will no longer be asking, “Why are we doing this?”, “Does this really matter?”, or “How does this work?” Neither will they be asking whether there’s an appetite for change.
Very simply Mr. Speaker the plebiscite has been a necessary and constructive step toward definitively determining our future electoral system and achieving a “Clear expression of the will of the population of Prince Edward Island” through a referendum that calls for clear “A or B” choice.
We could not have reached this point without the plebiscite.
If the Special Committee on Democratic Renewal had come to this House in April with a recommendation for Prince Edward Island to hold a binding referendum with an “A versus B” choice and with one of those choices to be MMPR, we would have been shocked. Prince Edward Islanders would have said, “Where did this come from?” And frankly, I very much doubt that such a proposal would have been accepted.
Here we are today, considering a motion put forward by the Government that would see our Province committed to hold a binding referendum with MMP on the ballot, something that would have been far from our imagination only six months ago. That Mr. Speaker is honouring the plebiscite. PEI has passed a new milestone on its historical path of democratic renewal. We are a changed province. We won’t be going back. History doesn’t work that way.
Mr. Speaker, as we consider this motion and envisage going through to a binding referendum on democratic renewal, let me go back to something I said earlier:
For a referendum on democratic renewal to achieve its greatest possible contribution to Prince Edward Island continuing democratic evolution, this is going to take time and attention. And it is going to require a healthy, constructive and respectful exercise of reflection, discernment, education and dialogue.
For this to be achieved, the example will need to be set by those of us who have the honour to serve as members of this Legislative Assembly.
We will need to show leadership.
Mr. Speaker, it falls a long way short of that standard of decorum and respect — or that call to leadership — for a member of this Assembly to accuse others who are expressing honest views on a question of fundamental importance of filibustering or to label a motion honestly put and yet to be debated on the floor of the Legislature as cowardice.
By the standard of any right-thinking or sensible Prince Edward Islander, Mr. Speaker, such language is intemperate and bad mannered. Moreover, Mr. Speaker, those accusations were made through the public media, and were obviously aimed at discouraging proper and fulsome debate in this Assembly.
Mr. Speaker, I trust that all members of this Assembly and all Prince Edward Islanders will embrace the referendum on democratic renewal proposed by this motion as a moment to call on our better natures. And that we will embrace this as a moment in our lives from which we intend to emerge as better people, — and as a democratically renewed people.
Mr. Speaker, our immediate objective for the Referendum on Democratic Renewal should be to achieve “a clear expression of the will of the population of Prince Edward Island.”
Our longer-term objective, our historical objective, must be for Prince Edward Island to continue to lead our country as an exemplar of electoral engagement and democratic renewal.
These are high goals, Mr. Speaker. They would be impossible to achieve almost anywhere but Prince Edward Island. In our Province, we are blessed with a rich sense of community. We have rich traditions of political engagement.
We are unbelievably blessed to as legislators to have an historic opportunity to add to that sense of community, and to build on those traditions of political engagement.
With that Mr. Speaker, I conclude my comments as the mover of this motion. I thank colleagues for their attention. I look forward to the contributions by all members of this House as we continue with consideration of this motion.
Thank you Mr. Speaker.