A Diverse Table is a Better Table (Or, Why I Will Rally Tonight)

I have participated in two protest rallies in my life.

The first was at the gates of the Warkworth Institution in Ontario in the late 1980s, a silent protest against the possible reintroduction of capital punishment in Canada.

The second was a few years ago in front of Province House, a reproductive rights rally organized by the PEI Reproductive Rights Organization.

In both cases the issues at hand were ones I felt so deeply about that I felt I had no choice but to lend my voice, and to set aside my feeling that change is better made quietly, deliberately and collaboratively that through shouting.

Tonight I’ll rally again, along side my son Oliver, in front of the Legislative Assembly at a Rally for Democracy.


Many different reasons; but chief among them is a feeling, based on years of experience, that a diverse table is a better table, and that the current government’s move to slow the progress toward proportional representation in the Legislative Assembly is a move that ignores the fierce urgency of evolving the way we govern Prince Edward Island.

One of the things I’m most proud of regarding my term as president of the PEI Home and School Federation is the degree to which we increased the diversity of the two yearly meetings of our membership. We decided that having many people with a stake and role in public education around the table would improve the quality of the discussion, so we extended invitations beyond our usual invitations to the Minister of Education and their deputy, and broadened the list to include school trustees, school board staff, senior leaders in the Department of Education, representatives of the education unions, and to community members with an interest in education.

Which is how I found myself around a table this past April with Home and School members talking about how we could improve playgrounds. One of the people who joined us was Ricky Hood, at the time the official trustee of the English Language School Board, and someone with decades of experience in public schools. Ricky participated eagerly and helpfully in the conversation that ensued, and was able both to provide some historical insights, vision as to what the possibilities and limitations might be, and, perhaps more than anything else, made the conversation more like a planning session among partners than a cry into the wind.

It confounds me, in light of this, and many other similar examples, that so often the calls to broaden the diversity of the conversation is reacted to with a strong anti-viral response.

For example, back in 2013 home and school members passed a resolution Cross Appointments Between Health PEI and English Language School Board, our reasoning well-expressed in the preamble:

WHEREAS in recent years there has been a move to centralize the operational authority for both health and wellness (through the creation of Health PEI) and education (through the creation of a single English Language School Board), and

WHEREAS there is an increasing awareness of the connections between mental and physical health and success in education, and

WHEREAS many operational issues relating to public school education can benefit from the perspective, resources and services of the health system, and

WHEREAS many operational issues in relation to mental and physical health can benefit from the perspective, resources and services of the public education system,

The response?

The Minister of Education: As this resolution is a school board matter, I will defer the decision on this resolution to the school board.

The English Language School Board: Therefore, the English Language School Board understands that the Minister of Education has sole authority to increase the number of members for each school board.  The School Act does not authorize a school board to increase the number of its members, ex officio or otherwise.

Health PEI: The resolution regarding cross-appointments between Health PEI and the English Language School Board tabled by the Home and School Federation is certainly a very interesting proposal to consider. At this time, in my role as Chair, I have discussed the proposal with our Nominations Chair. We would welcome the opportunity to discuss our cunent nominations process in more detail.

So, in other words, one “sounds interesting” and two conflicting “not my departments,” pointing the finger toward the other.

Needless to say, no action was taken.

This viral response against increased diversity was on strong show in the Legislative Assembly last Tuesday as it debated Motion 80, the government’s “hold on there, let’s not get carried away” response to the interpretation of the plebiscite results.

Hon. Robert Henderson used the opportunity to re-debate the very notion of proportional representation:

I mentioned before, in New Zealand, 13 political parties, seven parties represented, coalitions are always the norm, and parties leading the coalition tend to be really down to just two parties, the National Party and the Labour Party, that always lead the coalition.

In Israel, if you take a look at that one, which is directly a proportional representation system, term limits are four years. It has rarely lasted four years. Since implemented, no party has ever won a majority government. Voters select a party on a ballot and parties have 42 days then to form a coalition. If you look at their voter turnout, in 1992, 77%, and in 2006, 63%.

If you look at another parliament that might be a little bit closer to PE, Iceland has 15 parties that are on the ballot of which seven have seats in the legislature. Iceland, population is about double ours. They have about 237,000 eligible voters. They have 63 seats in their parliament and in the most recent election the Independence Party had 21 seats, the Pirates had 10, Greens, Progressive Reform, Brighter Futures, so there are seven parties have seats in the House. This is a system that has been in place for some time.

Greece is another one. Greece has 300 seats, of which 288 are represented by 56 particular ridings of which 12 are off lists. Forty years they’ve been doing some form of this system. They had to change it 17 times to try to get it a little more closer to a system that worked from direct proportional representation to a system now that’s called a reinforced proportional representation. In Greece 20 parties, eight parties in parliament, have over 9 million voters. Since 2007 – I think this is a neat point – eight elections in Greece. I know Greece has its problems, but PEI has had three elections during that period of time.

What Mr. Henderson is suggesting, I think, is that diversity is bad for government, leads to instability, and therefore, logically, that our current system is better.

Bush Dumville, MLA pursued a different, more direct tack, suggesting that what you and I might call “diversity” is really government by “special interest groups”:

The proportional representation lobby and Honour the Vote campaign is well organized with advertisements, robocalls, social media pressure, and even there was a suggestion on Facebook for civil disobedience. It appears to be a well-funded lobby of special interest groups. I do not want our province to be covered by special interest groups. I want PEI to be governed by parties which have broad-based policies and which garner the support of a wide range of Islanders.

A first-past-the-post electoral system discourages single issue or limited issue parties and encourages parties to develop broader policies that appeal to the majority of voters.

What both Hon. Mr. Henderson and Mr. Dumville appear to assume in their statements is that a more diverse parliament would work in the same fashion is today’s less diverse parliament, only with heightened  cacophony and chaos.

What they ignore is the possibility that increased diversity might not only increase the quality of the discussion by integrating a broader collection of viewpoints, but that the very nature of how the discussion is conducted – the spirit of the discussion, so to speak – would change as well.

In addition to Islander’s well-worn love of the duopolistic practice of politics, which generally descends into daily variations of “we’re the best; you’re an idiot” in the legislature, there lurks, deep in the cultural DNA, another, even more powerful impulse, which is the spirit of collaboration. This spirit is on daily display from one end of the Island to the other in the way we conduct our lives outside of the legislature, and there is no reason to think that it’s not possible to bring it inside the rail as well.

For example, at a provincial home and school meeting, when the representative of the western end of the Island mentioned that it was unreasonable to expect people from West Prince to drive to Charlottetown or Summerside for home and school training workshops, the reaction of their peers on the provincial board was simply to organize workshops in West Prince, not to descend into internecine geo-rivalry discussions. In my experience this is the rule rather than the exception: it is only on the floor of the Legislature that we seem to lose our ability to think and act collaboratively.

But what of this fierce urgency? Why should we not, as the government suggests, simply wait for 2023 for proportional representation to be introduced?

Here’s an excerpt from remarks by U.S. Secretary of Education Kathleen Sebelius on the anniversary of the March on Washington:

When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke at the March on Washington, he described a “fierce urgency of now.” He reminded a divided nation that we need one another, and that we are stronger when we march forward, together. “We cannot walk alone,” he said. “And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall march ahead. We cannot turn back.” 

A half century later, Dr. King’s words have renewed meaning.

For every little boy or girl in America whose health lies in the balance, there is an urgency of now.

For every one of our neighbors who lives day-after-day in fear because they do not have insurance, there is an urgency of now.

For every mom or dad who has faced bankruptcy because of a mounting medical bill, there is an urgency of now.

Without the opportunity to live a healthy life, there is no opportunity to live the American dream or participate fully in our communities. Without the freedom which comes from having access to quality health care, there is no freedom to reach our full potential in the workforce or watch our kids or grandkids grow up. Without the security of health insurance, there is no economic security for middle-class families, and so many other families working their way into the middle class. 

The time for division and debate has passed. Now is the time to march forward.

While Dr. King was speaking of a different division in a different context, I believe the spirit of his words – the fierce urgency of now – applies here on Prince Edward Island as we sit as this juncture.

A call for increased diversity in the way we govern ourselves is urgent because for too long we have chosen our representatives from a smaller subset of the population, one that doesn’t reflect the many hues of the human experience on Prince Edward Island. What Mr. Dumville fears in the integration of “special interests” into the legislature looks very different if you are someone whose voice has never had a place there; I believe we cannot forge a truly progressive, prosperous, just Island together until we right this historical wrong.

I believe a step toward more proportional representation is one way we can do that; to delay is to turn a blind eye to an obvious course toward improving our lot, a course that was well and definitively expressed through the plebiscite.

And so tonight I will join my voice with others to make it clear that I expect the results of the plebiscite to be honoured in both letter and spirit, and I expect to be able to sit in the public gallery of a more diverse, collaborative Legislative Assembly in 2019.


Ton Zijlstra's picture
Ton Zijlstra on November 29, 2016 - 14:50 Permalink

The examples given of where proportional representation seems to not work seems like a cherry picking effort. The list of countries with such a system isn't exactly small: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proportional_representation#List_of_countr... For every disfunctional Greek cabinet, I raise you a Switzerland that has been stable for ages. For every Italy with decades of failing governments every year or so I give you a Norway, a Sweden or a Netherlands (where currently a social-democratic / conservative liberals coalition is on course for two terms / 8yrs of stable government). Or in economic terms, of the 12 countries with an AAA credit rating (of which Canada is one), 8 have proportional representation systems.

Oliver Rukavina's picture
Oliver Rukavina on November 29, 2016 - 16:02 Permalink

Places like Home, Travel, Hospitals, etc. is not Places as which People from Government (I.E. Work) is not connected to Others because Government need to be open to Other Governments than The One Itself (Government working with Other Governments) In this Sense of Open I Mean Connected via the Internet (Skype and Other Chat Applications) Prince Edward Island and Other Governments in this Country (Canada) Continent (North America) and this Planet (Earth).

Chris Ortenburger's picture
Chris Ortenburger on November 29, 2016 - 23:14 Permalink

Well said, Peter, and thanks for scooping out all those fear-mongering statements from Robbie Henderson and Bush Dumville for the record here.

W.Wilkins's picture
W.Wilkins on November 30, 2016 - 08:22 Permalink

Well felt, well thought out, well said. Even more - well acted upon. It's so easy to do nothing, postpone, obfuscate. And, it's difficult to speak truth. But to act truth? That takes real courage. Thanks.

Ian Carter's picture
Ian Carter on November 30, 2016 - 16:57 Permalink

Thanks Peter ... your remarks capture my feelings nicely.
I sat in the public gallery a few weeks ago on the first day of this new session. I was outraged by:
1. the arrogance and pomposity of the Liberal caucus
2. the shameful lack of diversity.
Change is long overdue ... simply, Honour the Vote!

Andrew Morrow's picture
Andrew Morrow on December 1, 2016 - 03:47 Permalink

As always a thoughtful and well researched point of view.
If our Premier ever thought of himself as an agent of change he has missed the first principle - when you listen you actually have to act to create change. Not allowing the Liberal caucus a free vote was both a tactical mistake and a mistake that puts his role in history as a barrier to change.

Dianne Morrow's picture
Dianne Morrow on December 1, 2016 - 16:41 Permalink

I hope you consider submitting a version of this post to PEI newspapers, Peter, so that more readers can ponder the heart of the issue--which you've so clearly explained.

Bruce MacNaughton's picture
Bruce MacNaughton on December 1, 2016 - 18:14 Permalink

Thank you for all that you do for our community Peter. Perhaps I am naive to constitutional matters, but I am curious as to why our provincial government cannot be a reflection of municipal government. There would be no official affiliations and each member would have to represent their constituency and not the muscle of party of politics.