They’re Closing the Scranton Branch?! (Or, Reflections on Electoral Reform)

The plot that runs through the first season of the U.S. version of The Office is that the Scranton Branch of Dunder Mifflin is under threat of closure; much of what ensued over that short 6-episode season extends from this conceit:

News spreads throughout the office that Dunder Mifflin’s corporate headquarters is planning to downsize an entire branch, leading to general anxiety, but Michael chooses to deny or downplay the realities of the situation in order to maintain employee morale.

It’s hard not to think of this as we watch our Members of the Legislative Assembly this week debating how to best interpret the results of a non-binding plebiscite on electoral reform that concluded last week with Mixed Member Proportional Representation emerging the victor at the end of the ranked balloting calculations.

MLAs are, in my experience, honourable people who don’t receive enough credit for the demands the job places on them. The job, however, at least in its current incarnation, requires one to have an extraordinary belief in the truth of ones own convictions and the veracity of ones ideas. It is not a job given to attracting collaborators simply because the way we’ve opted to run our legislature is more cage-match-with-decorum than develop-consensus-together-for-a-better-future.

Which is to say that honourable as though they might be, they are not disinterested parties in determining how they and their successors should be selected: if you’ve jumped through the wrenching logistical hoops to get elected to the Assembly under System A, it is inevitable that when System B comes along as the popular favourite, a system that threatens to turn things upside down, redraw the districts, throw all the models and traditions out of whack, and create a new, largely unknown playing field, you would react negatively, or at least with deep suspicion. And that negativity needn’t be seen as selfish, at least not entirely: if you are part of a government doing what you perceive to be good works following a markedly different philosophy than others might, why would you volunteer to close the Scranton Branch and let the nogoodniks from Nashua and Buffalo take over? It would be irrational.

If I’ve learned anything in these mid-stages of my life, it’s that being right about something has little to do with anything, and simply trying harder to be even righter seldom produces a better result, and often has unintended consequences.

In this light it’s important that we all seek to understand more about the motivations that lie beneath the actions of MLAs who, some would say, are clinging irrationally to a first-past-the-post lifeboat, and, others would say, are defending a system that’s always worked and always will.

The people I trust the voices of most on electoral reform on Prince Edward Island are those Islanders who’ve served inside the belly of the beast and have had time to reflect on their experiences.

Alan Buchanan was an MLA from 1989 to 1996, in the Joe Ghiz and Catherine Callbeck governments, serving in cabinet as Minister of Health and Social Services and Minister of Provincial Affairs and Attorney General. Alan is a thoughtful soul, and one of the Island’s smartest minds. In his essay A Case for Accepting the Results he reflects on both the election of Donald Trump and the interpretation of the plebiscite results here on the Island; he writes, in part:

Just as in the United States, people here have grown tired and impatient with a system of government that appears to simply and routinely pass power back and forth between the two mainstream parties. They are tired of a system that appears to create a king-like premier who can reward his friends at court with contracts and largess. I am not for a moment suggesting this is a new phenomenon. Patronage has always been a part of the boss-follower model of politics we have practiced here on PEI. I was a part of it myself.

Cynthia King served as an MLA from 2007 to 2011 in the Robert Ghiz government. Cynthia has been a friend for a long time – she taught Oliver how to ride a bike – and she too has had cause to reflect on her time in the legislature. In Putting legislators back in legislature an opinion piece in The Guardian that ran last week, she reveals some of what she learned:

Let me be clear … these are not criticisms of the government of which I was a member. I believe that they are endemic to our electoral system and how it interacts with our provincial legislature.

I learned some hard lessons very quickly about being an MLA

I learned that MLA’s are expected to tow the party line, regardless of what an issue means to the constituents I was elected to serve.

I learned that being a career councillor was more important than being a legislator.

I learned that a perceived impression of doing people favours was the preferred modus operandi.

I learned that cynicism is as pronounced with government as it is with the electorate.

I learned that advancement in the system in the form of chairing a committee or getting into cabinet, for example, was based on a number of factors with partisan loyalty being chief among them.

Liberal or Conservative … it is all the same and will remain so as long as we continue to elect governments using FPTP.

This week, in the Other Side of Crazy, on her own website, a rumination on the results of the plebiscite, she elaborates:

And in order to level this imbalance of power there needs to be an illusion of opposition, because in reality, there isn’t much of one. Traditionally, anyone who ends up across from government, as the official Opposition, spews as much, if not more, rhetoric as government. Question Period is embarrassing at best and a complete waste of time, save for the sound bites for the media. There is no attempt at cooperation or collaboration as far as the public can see. Oppositions are generally ineffective at holding governments to account. They are on the other side which means they must oppose everything, even if it’s a good idea.

Allan Rankin had a very brief spate of party-political activity, running unsuccessfully against sitting Premier Alex Campbell in the election of 1974 for the NDP; chastened, he found his strong suit in other areas of the democratic process, serving, over a distinguished career, as a public servant, Deputy Minister, Clerk of the Legislative Assembly and Clerk of Executive Council (he’s also a talented musician; I designed his first website, years ago, and we’ve been friends since). There is no Islander alive today who’s seen more of government from more perspectives. He called the plebiscite back in March in his column in The Eastern Graphic, The Forces Against Electoral Reform:

Given Premier MacLauchlan’s outspoken opposition to changing the present voting system, and the reluctance of the two major political parties to weaken their own stranglehold on power, it is difficult to imagine any plebiscite vote producing a call for reform, or the present government signing off on it.

I attended the Special Committee’s meeting last week in Hunter River, and the forces both in favor and against democratic reform were strongly represented.

The reformers of course were there, schooled in electoral science, and they spoke about the Finland and New Zealand experiences, although that discussion seemed to go over the heads of many.

Also present at the United Church gathering were a few local residents whose kinship with the two major political parties in the province was obvious.

I noticed at least two former District Poll Chairmen.

Their skepticism and fear of electoral reform is understandable, because broadening the tent politically threatens the two old line parties, who have taken turns governing the Island for the past 150 years.

Strong majority governments dispensing favoritism and patronage is their preferred political landscape.

Alan and Cynthia and Allan have been locked inside the panopticon of our democracy; each has a deep understanding of how things work on the inside of our first-past-the-post two-party system. And while each has had reasons, since leaving public service, to grind axes, their axe-grinding days are long since over, and their contemplations are among the best, least-biased user’s guides to democratic reform we have.

We would do well to heed their wise words.


Chris Ortenburger's picture
Chris Ortenburger on November 18, 2016 - 19:26 Permalink

Thank you, Peter, for that summary and your thoughts.

Walter Wilkins's picture
Walter Wilkins on November 19, 2016 - 09:18 Permalink

Not to quibble, I really do appreciate the intent of Rukavina's comment that, "Alan (Buchanan) and Cynthia (King) and Allan (Rankin) have been locked inside the panopticon of our democracy." However, I don't agree that they have been locked "inside" anything, especially a panopticon inside a democracy.

From my perspective, it's quite the opposite. They have been locked outside and from the inside they have been effectively mocked and shunned. In short, the usual tools were applied to disengage Buchanan's, King's and Rankin's "inside" access to legislative governance. Should Islanders doubt such tools of disengagement actually exist, one need look no further than Motion 80.