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.