My Island patriotism is steadfast. For most of my adult life I have trumpeted Prince Edward Island as a proud and independent jurisdiction within Canada, and coveted the belief that small is beautiful. Pondering the words “the small under the protection of the great” on our provincial emblem, I have even perversely believed the very opposite.
When the Confederation Bridge was constructed, I was among those who saw it as a terrible crime, defiling our Island identity, but now I am unsure if that icy Strait ever did separate us, or make us unique.
After suffering through the debate on electoral reform which took place in the Legislature, my faith in Lilliput the Great has been shaken, and it has caused me to question the jurisdictional future of our little Island cradled on the waves. Watching the MacLauchlan Liberals turn away from positive change, and fail to respect democratic principles, I am left wondering if Prince Edward Island’s days as a self-governing province of Canada are numbered.
The quality of a Legislative Assembly I believe is determined by its collective ability to engage the big issues thoughtfully and independently, and with a sense of purpose. It should not become a field for partisan team sports, in which elected members allow themselves to be whipped into submission, or obedience, like so many trained seals, as the Liberals did on electoral reform.
The Legislature is not group therapy either, or a place to waste time speaking of little things.
I say this after having listened to Minister Brown’s historical treatise on the American Civil War, Minister Mundy’s perplexing speech about the respective duties of soldiers and scouts, and Conservative MLA Steven Myers’ personal appeal to those who have made nasty comments about his alleged use of vending machines.
Both Premier MacLauchlan and Third Party Leader Bevan-Baker are political novices, with outstanding personal qualities and potential as legislators, but it was Bevan-Baker who distinguished himself in the recent debate. The premier looked uncertain and afraid, like a boy caught by his mother trying to hide a pet rabbit. You don’t want to say too much in that circumstance. Just keep the door closed and hope she goes away.
Proportional representation is not a panacea. But it would rebalance our system, and make it easier for women, and people of minorities, to enter provincial political life. It would allow us to achieve greater diversity. That is a good thing for all of us I suggest, at a time when our political culture is stagnant from a century or more of partisanship, producing something akin to weak tea.
In my view that weak tea, that archaic political culture, is the pet rabbit Premier MacLauchlan and the Liberal Party is desperately trying to protect at all costs.
It is no coincidence MacLauchlan’s abrupt turnaround on democratic reform is in concert with a decision by the federal government to also put on the brakes with respect to abolishing the first-past-the-post electoral system federally. Prince Edward Island has the constitutional authority to change its electoral system in whatever manner it chooses, however it appears that jurisdictional independence must take a back seat to Liberal Party interests.
I am not optimistic about the path laid out by the premier.
The mystery option for an upcoming nonbinding, binding referendum does seem clear to me. It will be a sleight-of-hand, crafty version of electoral reform that provides a scintilla of proportionality and changes nothing.
My guess is we will tinker our way forward rather than renew or transform.
If we are incapable of effecting meaningful reforms, then perhaps political union with our neighbouring provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia is worthy of consideration. When old party politics has made the province dysfunctional and resistant to progressive change, and our elected representatives, with a few exceptions, lack the will or independence to strengthen our system of government, maybe we ought to throw in the towel.
Any sea captain will tell you it’s more noble to go down in deep water than founder on the shoals.
After all, that storied September 1864 meeting in Charlottetown, initially was called to discuss a union of the three Maritime Provinces, but was commandeered by the upper Canadians to put forward their greater scheme.
Meantime, I have a suggestion for our MLAs when it comes to debate. Visit the Public Archives at your leisure, just a short elevator ride to the top floor of the Coles Building, and spend a little time with “The Speeches of Hon Edward Whelan,” a book that contains all you will ever hope to know about political discourse.
Whelan was an Irish orphan with just a primary education. He apprenticed in the newspaper offices of Joseph Howe and later came to the Island.
Fighting for responsible government against the Family Compact, a group of wealthy office holders not unlike the business and professional elite that controls Prince Edward Island these days, Whelan was courageous and true to his principles.
From the pages of his weekly newspaper, The Palladium, and in the Island Legislature, he emerged as one of the foremost orators and statesmen of his era.
With the great Edward Whelan as their example, I strongly encourage our current MLAs to better inform and educate themselves, to read, think critically, and speak more freely and independently on major public issues.
Our Legislature can be a crucible of the Island spirit, and a powerful instrument of change and progress.
Otherwise, sheltering as the little saplings under the protection of the greater oak may no longer be enough, and Maritime union perhaps will be our only transformative change on the horizon.