The Opposite of Proportional is Disproportional

I have been following the progress of Bill No. 38, Electoral System Referendum Act in the Legislative Assembly this spring with interest. I’ve read the draft bill through many times, and my discomfort increases with each reading; indeed I’ve started half a dozen blog posts to try and get at the heart of what irks me, but I’ve abandoned all of them as I could never find my way there. Until now.

The heart of my discontent, I have discovered, lies in the very purpose of the bill, laid out in section 2:

The purpose of this Act is to make the process for the referendum transparent and fair, by

(a)  establishing the referendum question;

(b)  providing for the appointment of a Referendum Commissioner who is an officer of the Legislative Assembly and who will oversee related matters leading up to and after the referendum vote; and

(c)  establishing a level playing field for those who wish to publicly oppose or support a change to the voting system as set out in the referendum question, by providing for equal public funding for organizations who register as registered referendum advertisers and are opposing or supporting one or the other of the possible answers to the referendum question, and by limiting spending on paid advertising in a reasonable manner, for the public good, so that residents of the province have the opportunity to make a decision that is based on information from both points of view.

I have been a card-carrying member of the patriarchy for more than 50 years, and so have more than passing familiarity both with the mechanisms we use to maintain our lock on running things, and with the lies we choose to tell ourselves and others as to why that’s okay.

But I’ve also spent a lot of those years trying to listen, sometimes successfully, to the voices of the marginalized, and to better understand my privilege. And if I’ve learned nothing else it is that those holding the reigns of power are incapable of establishing what is transparent, fair, and “a level playing field.”

This is not because we are evil, or have impure motives, it is simply because power obscures the ability to understand what lack of power entails.

For hundreds of years Prince Edward Island has been governed by a democracy that does not reflect the depth and breadth of the population: we have lived, for myriad reasons, with a legislature that is disproportionately representative of a narrow slice of the population (wealthy, white, able-bodied, capitalist, property-owning men). We are all trapped inside this system to the point where attempts to point this out are characterized as destabilizing.

And so when the government of the day introduces a bill claiming to establish a “level playing field,” we should be suspicious, especially when the through-line put forward by many members of that government–and, indeed, by some opposition members–is that our last electoral reform plebiscite was hijacked by mysterious forces from away (of the 24 pages in the draft bill, 9 lay out a complex system of free speech abrogation that seems designed entirely as a reaction to this unfounded paranoia).

The proposed referendum question itself is perhaps the best evidence that the playing field is not level:

Should Prince Edward Island change its voting system to a mixed member proportional voting system?

Put another way, this question might read “Should Prince Edward Island maintain a voting system that disproportionately reflects some citizens?”, but, again, it’s impossible for those developing the question to see the issue in that light, as their position prevents them from accepting that this might be the case.

I’m the first to admit that it’s really, really hard to bootstrap a jurisdiction out of a system to which we’ve become so inured as to consider it normal.

But Bill 38 is not the right answer: it is the patriarchy’s response to rumblings of discontent that it seeks to stanch not understand.

We can do better.


Andrew Morrow's picture
Andrew Morrow on May 25, 2018 - 08:04 Permalink

Well though out. I am glad you finally worked throught your thougths on the issues in formulating the legislation. Time will tell if the recent ammendment will satisfy the basic issues you set out. Breaking down the rights of the patrimony is a long time project.

Ian Carter's picture
Ian Carter on May 25, 2018 - 08:09 Permalink

Thanks you for capturing this concern perfectly ... please consider wider distribution to include Island newspapers.

Gary Schneider's picture
Gary Schneider on May 25, 2018 - 08:35 Permalink

Thanks for taking the time to write this important piece. I believe it is so important that we witness and speak to what is actually going on. Hopefully you're helping to build a movement towards fairness for all citizens. Much appreciated.

Hans Connor's picture
Hans Connor on May 25, 2018 - 08:46 Permalink

Hi Peter, its been a while since I've seen your blog or commented, but this post is so beautifully written and articulates both broad and specific concerns that I couldn't help myself. I hope many Islanders (including the powers-that-be) get a chance to read this.

Dave Hyndman's picture
Dave Hyndman on May 25, 2018 - 08:53 Permalink

Great post!

“This is not because we are evil, or have impure motives, it is simply because power obscures the ability to understand what lack of power entails.”

roy johnstone's picture
roy johnstone on May 25, 2018 - 09:17 Permalink


This is a fine piece of writing. I agree that many of us from the patriarchy can't see or hear the voices of the oppressed or the disenfranchised however I think there is a strong component of self service and maintaining their own power in the legislation the MacLaughlin Liberals are proposing and apparently now passed.

roy johnstone's picture
roy johnstone on May 25, 2018 - 09:34 Permalink

my mistake, the Bill 38 is still being debated in the legislature.

Mark Greenan's picture
Mark Greenan on May 25, 2018 - 09:47 Permalink

Most excellent writing Peter. I am hoping that you might consider submitting this to the Guardian. All the best to you and yours.

Judith Bayliss's picture
Judith Bayliss on May 25, 2018 - 09:48 Permalink

Thank you for your clear analysis of this proposed legislation. I agree with your every word.

Walter Wilkins's picture
Walter Wilkins on May 25, 2018 - 09:51 Permalink

Ears perked up, back in 1979, when Audre Lorde said, “The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House.” However, it appears your position implies that it may be hard (but still possible) to use the tools “the patriarchy” uses to dismantle patriarchy? If so, your position seems to hold more hope than Lorde’s position. If you have such hope, I wonder if it pivots on the belief that Bill 38 isn’t the right tool, but a different or much amended Bill - given birth from the same legislative womb - may do the trick? If I’m reading you accurately, I hope you’re correct. But sadly, I see no evidence such hope is warranted. What evidence is there that a meaningfully amended Bill 38 will ever see the light of day? And sadly again, doesn’t the absence of any evidence that there’s a will to broaden representation not only kill hope, by default it also helps to maintain a system that manufactures and covets disillusionment?

Lest we forget, disillusionment is its own tool. It’s a tool our present system uses to strategically disenfranchise and remove hope - from people like me. After all, if there’s a way to make people not care, for a few, what a great useful tool would that be?

In this, Bill 38 will serve the present government well; it twists even tighter a way to provide the wants of a few over needs of the many.

Andrew Morrow's picture
Andrew Morrow on May 25, 2018 - 17:06 Permalink

There is an interesting article in the Atlantic that parallels our little debate over social change through democratic change. The author Mathew Stewart describes a new elite in America:
“The meritocratic class has mastered the old trick of consolidating wealth and passing privilege along at the expense of other people’s children.”
This class occupies our legislature regardless of political affiliation.

Ian Carter's picture
Ian Carter on May 25, 2018 - 10:24 Permalink

When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty. - Thomas Jefferson

William Burden's picture
William Burden on May 25, 2018 - 13:54 Permalink

" is simply because power obscures the ability to understand what lack of power entails." Perfect description of a corrupt political system focused on Party confrontation and division. We desperately need a System based on collaboration and connsensus where the power to govern is spread among all elected members.

Josh Underhay's picture
Josh Underhay on May 25, 2018 - 22:14 Permalink

Yes. Thanks for this post, Peter.

This Bill 38 is a terribly unfair piece of legislation, regardless of which electoral system you prefer. I think that a few small amendments would make it much fairer, such as the threshold of 50%+1 being based on the number of votes for the referendum only, and not counting the non-votes as status-quo votes.

Curtailing free speech is another huge issue that should bother any Islander who values personal liberty or a sense of justice.