If the Liberal government wants to get itself out of its electoral reform jam, it should pay careful attention to Prince Edward Island. The province may be tiny, but its use of a plebiscite to consult voters, and the results of that plebiscite, point the way forward for the entire country. You can't change the fundamentals of democracy without strong and clear popular support. You can't discover the will of the people without asking them to vote. And reforming the system of electing politicians cannot be left in the hands of the politicians.
Before we get to what PEI is getting right, let's review what's been happening, and not happening, at the federal level.
Last fall, the Trudeau government won election with a platform featuring scores of promises. One of them was electoral reform. It was not the biggest or most talked-about issue in the campaign, and in fact it was rather far from the spotlight. But it was in the platform. And it was a clear and explicit promise: that the election of 2015 would be the last conducted according to first-past-the-post, the system for choosing our representatives that has been around since before Confederation.
The Liberals promised to get rid of it – but left unspoken what would replace it. Or why.
They also promised to consult Canadians on the change, though for months they put two rather large restrictions on that consultation. First, they insisted that consultation was about figuring what kind of electoral reform Canadians wanted – not whether they wanted it. The logic seemed to go something like this: Ending first-past-the-post was on the Liberals' list of promises, because of the allegedly inherent unfairness of first-past-the-post; the Liberals had just won an election held according to first-past-the-post, receiving the votes of 39 per cent of the people; ergo, Canadians voted to end first-past-the-post.
The second caveat on consultation was just as strange. The government would hold town halls, they would do polling, they would tell people to tweet or like them on Facebook, and they would invite self-selected groups of electoral reform advocates to duke it out in the church basements of the nation, unseen and unheard by the vast majority of Canadians.
But what the government would not commit to was consulting Canadians on the future of democracy using, you know, democracy. The idea of a referendum on electoral reform was not something the Trudeau government was willing to put on the table.
Recently, however, the government started softening this stance. A few weeks ago, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that any reform of something as fundamental as the voting system would require "substantial" public support. He also said that, thanks to the election of his party, "the motivation to change the electoral system is less compelling." A day later, he walked those comments back, saying electoral reform was "a commitment we made in our election that I continue to be deeply committed to."
At the same time, however, Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef said the government would not move forward on electoral reform without the broad support of Canadians.
By the end of this month, a parliamentary committee on electoral reform will issue its report. Around the same time, you should be receiving a postcard from the Liberal government – asking you to visit a website and tell it what you think about electoral reform. This file is moving toward some kind of conclusion, though what the government wants to do – and more importantly, what Canadians want – remains unclear.
Which brings us back to Prince Edward Island, and the way forward for Canada. PEI recently conducted a non-binding plebiscite on electoral reform of its legislature. Voters were asked to choose among five options, including the status quo. The voting system used in the plebiscite contained several innovations: 16- and 17-year-olds were allowed to vote, and it was possible to vote online or by phone.
The result is – well, it's complicated. The plebiscite used preferential ballots, which means voters were asked to rank the ballot options from first to last, rather than just making one "X." The vote was tallied using what is known as instant run-off voting. Mixed-member proportional representation won in the fourth round, with 52.4 per cent of the vote. The status quo of the first-past-the-post system came second, with 42.8 per cent support. (Preferential balloting, the system used by the plebiscite, was the second least popular choice.)
However, despite making it easier than ever for people to vote – online voting was not only available but open for more than a week – turnout was just 36.5 per cent. This in a province where turnout is typically over 80 per cent. And the victory for mixed-member proportional representation was slim, and only secured because it was the second, third or fourth choice of some voters. In fact, if the vote had been counted according to first-past-the-post, first-past-the-post would have won. It received the most first-place votes.
In the past decade and a half, Ontario and British Columbia have both conducted referendums on electoral reform, and both – correctly – insisted that change needed to be approved by something more than a simple majority. Both provinces kept the status quo after failing to secure that level of popular support. PEI Premier Wade MacLauchlan said that, in his province, the extremely low turnout and the lack of consensus among those few who voted means that "it is doubtful whether these results can be said to constitute a clear expression of the will of Prince Edward Islanders."
PEI may hold a binding referendum on the issue in conjunction with the next provincial election.
The bottom line is that PEI has got it right, or at least far more right than the federal government has so far. The people must be asked to choose. The status quo must be an option. And change must be possible – but only if a supermajority of the people clearly want it.