Initiate formation of a Citizens’ Assembly on Proportional Representation in 2020

The Motion:

Sponsored by: Anna Keenan, Jordan Bober, Lucy Morkunas, Natalie McDonald, Irene Novaczek, Pauline Howard, Andrew Lush & Nils Ling.

See the full motion, including supporting evidence, here.

Whereas the 2016 plebiscite was widely regarded as a fair and open process in which all islanders had equal opportunity to participate, and in which well-informed and engaged voters participated, and this plebiscite resulted in a 10% margin of victory for MMP over First Past the Post.

Whereas the Spring 2019 referendum ended in a stalemate - neither ‘Yes’ nor ‘No’ reached the 17-district threshold to be considered ‘binding’, as set out in the Electoral Systems Referendum Act,

Whereas a stalemate result was remarkable, considering that the Electoral Systems Referendum Act defining the rules for the referendum was highly controversial, requiring 27 amendments before passed with the support of only the MLAs of the previous governing party, and considering that the ‘No’ side campaign relied heavily on fear-based arguments.

Whereas the 49% result in the 2019 Referendum was for a specific, poorly-specified version of Mixed-Member Proportional Representation, and so it is nearly certain that support for proportionality as a principle is likely higher, and support for a better-designed version of Proportional Representation would likely gain the support of a majority of Islanders.

Whereas the ‘No’ vote in 2019 was highly geographically concentrated in the 3 districts Up West, and different designs of Proportional Systems can be found to address the specific concerns of that community.


Whereas PEI can lead Canada, and on this issue, Canada needs leadership.

Whereas countries with Proportional Representation have better representation of equity-seeking groups in politics, better results in climate action, and more trust in democracy, and more satisfaction with politics.

Whereas support for Proportional Representation is specifically named and enshrined in the Constitution of the Green Party of PEI, as part of the Global Green Charter core value of Participatory Democracy.

 

Whereas all politicians, and all parties, are widely perceived by the public, and by each other, to have a vested interest in the design of the electoral system.

Whereas Citizens’ Assemblies - a random selection of citizens, compensated for their time, engaging in a facilitated, deliberative process with access to expert advisors - have considerable legitimacy and public trust, because participants are a representative body of citizens that has no vested interest in the outcome.

Whereas Citizens’ Assemblies are representative of the general population; build civic capacity; focus on shared principles; and are generally a more meaningful way to hear from citizens than referenda.

Whereas Citizens’ assemblies can be used to discuss issues in which politicians are at an impasse and unable to agree with each other for political reasons. 



Whereas in 2019, 6 of PEI’s 8 Green MLAs were elected in seats which clearly supported MMP in the Referendum, and on average, 54% of the constituents of Green MLAs voted ‘Yes’ for MMP.

Whereas Islanders are enjoying the minority government, with government satisfaction reaching an 11-year high in late 2019; the minority government is providing experiential evidence that minority governments typical of Proportional systems can be more productive, stable and effective than majority governments; public anxiety about minority government has declined.

Whereas in 2020, the current Premier is in favour of Proportional Representation, as were the leaders of 3 of the 4 provincial parties in the last election.

Whereas if First Past the Post system is maintained, there is a significant chance that the next election could result in a false-majority government, and/or it could result in any one of the three elected island political parties being wiped out in a sweep of disproportionality; this risk presents an opportunity, as the two old-line parties may now see proportional representation as being in their interest.

And whereas voters’ memories are short, and delaying further on advancing this issue will lead to a loss of the considerable momentum built in the past years.



Therefore be it resolved that a provincial Citizens’ Assembly should be formed with a mandate which includes proposing, in a report to the Legislative Assembly, a specific, detailed design for a proportional electoral system that is tailored to PEI’s needs, and which it believes would meet the approval of a majority of the Island public.

Be it further resolved that the Citizens' Assembly should be formed of at least 27 willing, randomly-selected citizens, compensated for their time, who are broadly representative of island society as reflected in the Census, including age, gender, social class, and regional spread.

Be it further resolved that the Legislative Assembly shall respond to the report of the Citizens’ Assembly by tabling legislation to enact the changes recommended, and shall not respond by calling another referendum on the recommendations.

Be it further resolved that the process for forming such a Citizens’ Assembly should be initiated in 2020, while the right conditions exist for success.

 

Background:

This issue has been live on PEI for a long time. It was right to let the issue rest after the 2019 referendum, but if we want to achieve this change, now, 2020, is the time to bring it back, while we have the opportunity, the recent memory and a highly-informed public, and the benefit of a minority government and support from the Premier. 

Waiting another election is too risky - if Greens do not hold power, or even a balance of power, and another party gains a false-majority government, this issue will make no progress in the next 4-year period. We should not gamble on the off-chance that the Greens will form a majority government next election: rather, we must do what is right, now, while we have the opportunity. With delays, the recent memory and momentum on this issue will fade away, and any new efforts for change will be starting from a much-weakened base - we might not see this issue return for another few critical decades. 

It is worth noting that between the failed plebiscite in 2005 and the 2015 provincial election,  there was a decade of inaction on Proportional Representation, in which momentum nearly-completely stalled. We cannot risk this happening again.

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This issue is strong for the Greens, and for our Leader. It is largely thanks to the 2016 plebiscite campaign, and the principled advocacy of our Leader both during the plebiscite campaign, and the integrity demonstrated by the party during the ‘Honour the Vote’ campaign which followed, that Green popular support shot upwards by 20% in the polls, and Liberal party support tanked, paving the way for our electoral breakthrough in the 2017 byelection, and the 2019 general election. Indeed, the 2016 plebiscite campaign was a foundational piece of our party’s 2016-2024 Strategic Plan.

A clear majority of constituents of Green MLAs want to see Proportional Representation happen. Even in Districts 22 and 23, where Green MLAs represent districts s which narrowly voted ‘No’ to MMP, most voters there would accept that something has to change, even if they don’t support the specific model of MMP that was proposed. A Citizens’ Assembly can appeal to those voters as well. 

In all Green ridings, it is highly likely that the voters who voted ‘Yes’ strongly overlap with the base who voted Green. So: performing well on this issue is likely to enhance the ability of our current MLAs to hold their seats.

Calling for a Citizens’ Assembly now is likely to generate cross-party support, and will also demonstrate that governance is a major strength and differentiating factor for our party.

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At 49% Yes to 51% No, in the 2019 Referendum, which focused squarely on a specific model of MMP, there is clearly a lot of appetite in the community for reform.

Even the official ‘No’ side repeatedly said that they aren’t opposed to change itself, they are just opposed to ‘this specific change’: the Mixed-Member Proportional model proposed in the Referendum Act.

The PR Action Team’s Referendum Response advocated to the incoming government “to consult with both advocates and opponents to this change, and find ways to resolve the concerns raised during the campaign, including some elements of MMP which were not clearly defined by the previous government.”

Three needs that they identified to make MMP comfortable for a majority of islanders are:

1 - Requiring partisan candidate lists to be elected through a democratic process

2 - Mechanisms to prevent a loss of rural representation

3 - Establishing minimum thresholds for an individual or party to be elected to the proportional seats.

Each of these was raised several times throughout the 2019 campaign, and each is a solvable problem.

The lack of detail in Schedule 2 of the Referendum Act was disconcerting for many voters, and is something that the previous government could have easily addressed, had they consulted with stakeholders before rushing the Referendum Act through the house.

The outgoing government handled this file exceedingly poorly, and in a biased manner, and the results from the 2019 referendum reflect this.

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Finally, it should be noted that when a Citizens’ Assembly is formed, its mandate can cover many issues - it does not need to limited to Electoral Reform alone. For example, the Irish Citizens’ Assembly of 2016-18 - an exemplary process - covered 5 major topics over 18 months: abortion, the aging population, fixed-term parliaments, how referenda are held, and climate change.