By all accounts, Hon. James Aylward, Leader of the Official Opposition here in Prince Edward Island, is a capable politician: he seems well-respected by peers of all political stripes, and well-regarded as the new leader of the Progressive Conservative Party.
Well-regarded as he may be, he would not historically be the kind of person you’d look to for bold ideas.
Until, that is, his guest opinion Consensus Government model could be effective solution to many concerns P.E.I. faces was published in The Guardian newspaper on March 23, 2018.
Suddenly Mr. Aylward catapulted from being one of the least interesting politicians on the Island to one of the most interesting ones.
The heart of Mr. Aylward’s argument:
It may seem strange for the leader of a political party to be suggesting the possible adoption of a system that does not involve the political parties. Nunavut was established in 1999 and deliberately opted for an elected assembly void of political parties. We now have four main registered political parties in the province, vying for support, advancing policies, raising money, nominating candidates. It may seem like a healthy political environment but is it the most effective? Each party offers some highly talented individuals, some are elected in government and have either a cabinet or backbench role, others are elected in opposition. Many times, the talent of backbench members and opposition members are underutilized in the governing process although they have an equal interest in helping Islanders. My interest in changing the current system is to come up with a process that fully utilizes the talents of all elected MLA’s.
Our current system is based on the winner take all, decide all. This reduces the role of individual MLA’s. As you may recall from part one of my article there is a need for serious reform of the role of MLA’s.
Consensus government achieves that. Each MLA is elected on an individual independent candidate basis. No party platforms, no party signs, no party advertising, no premiers selected by a party, no focus on politics over policy, no backbenchers, no formal opposition. Just good people elected by each district working to provide good government.
This is an interesting idea for three distinct but overlapping reasons.
First, as Mr. Aylward himself states, it’s “strange for the leader of a political party to be suggesting the possible adoption of a system that does not involve the political parties.” That not only takes courage, but it also immediately vaults the idea into a place where it can be seriously considered: proposed by someone on the fringes of the established Island political scene, it would be seen suspiciously anarchistic; from the leader of a long-established political party whose seen where the bodies are buried, it’s something we all need to take seriously.
Second, it speaks well of Mr. Aylward’s skills as a leader. We’re in the heart of a protracted multi-year debate about the future of electoral politics here on Prince Edward Island, with intractable sides having dug in deep on both sides of the issue as to whether we should adopt proportional representation or maintain first-past-the-post. Rather than jumping into the fray of choosing option A or option B, Mr. Aylward has, instead, proposed option C. Or, indeed, more like option Σ. In a world of “should we have pizza or Thai?”, Aylward has proposed “bicycling.”
Third, and most significant, is that it sounds like a very good idea.
It has been my almost-universal experience that if a diverse group of fair-minded people come together to make a plan, great things–things that none of them as individuals would be capable of–can result. That is the heart of consensus, and the skills it fosters–compromise, creativity, compassion, cooperation–are all ones mostly absent in our current “you’re a jerk–no, you’re a jerk” method of governing ourselves.
In a fascinating January essay The problem with voting, Nadia Eghbal wrote, in part:
The goal of consensus seeking is to discuss concerns until no blockers remain, without coming to a vote. A vote is considered the “failure” outcome. Participants voice their concerns and listen to each other, but try to avoid blocking (or stalemating) the proposed course of action. When no blockers remain, stakeholders are said to have reached consensus.
Under consensus seeking, a proposal theoretically might have won 10–2, but if those 10 felt weakly about their support, and those 2 feel strongly opposed, the minority could still win.
This is decidedly not how we are governed here on Prince Edward Island, but I believe that we all have it deep within us to cooperate at this level.
Mr. Aylward deserves our thanks for raising this issue now, at this important juncture; I am hopeful that it will broaden the boundaries of the upcoming re-debate of proportional representation.
Peter Bevan-Baker, Leader of the Third Party, agrees, writing in a response to Mr. Aylward’s opinion piece:
Personally, I’d love to see a full discussion on the appropriateness of the Nunavut style of government for P.E.I. – indeed it was brought up by a small number of presenters during the community engagement phase of the electoral reform process we underwent leading up to the plebiscite in 2016.
So, thank you, James Aylward, for your radical idea. In the meantime, let’s honour the vote, adopt Proportional Representation, and take a bold step towards what many of us – including Aylward, and apparently the PC caucus — would love to see practised in Island politics: Politicians collaborating in non-partisan consensus decision-making for the betterment of our community.
With its overturning of the results of the last electoral reform plebiscite, and generally antediluvian attitude toward anything but the electoral status quo, the Liberal Party of Hon. Wade MacLauchlan has appeared dramatically out of sync with the progressive zeitgeist burbling through the Island; together Mr. Aylward and Mr. Bevan-Baker are raising the ante even further. The coming months, as a result, may make for some of the most interesting, substantive political debate the Island has seen since Confederation.
This may be putting too fine a point on the issue: what we may be looking for is collaborative governing rather than consensus. The latter is a majority opinion. Collaboration is working together for the best solution or outcome. I think a change of the word puts a different spin on the direction of governing.
The idea of consensus and community engagement appears very foreign to our way of governing here, where partisan practices in discussions and governing is the way. We are very different from the Innu people and we would have to change our culture significantly to achieve government by consensus. Like Peter B.B. I too would like to see a full discussion of this idea, but with Civic illiteracy in general amongst the population and our politicians how can we achieve that. Look at City Council, it is free of political party affiliation, do we have consensus? No we have sheer incompetence, byLaws, rules and guidelines change on a whim, much imposed by the Mayor on a docile Council. We have a lot of work to do.