Perhaps we were naïve in thinking that people were ready to consider a different way of governing ourselves. Or did we simply approach things the wrong way? Here’s our story. You be the judge.
What was our strategy?
One might think that holding public forums would be the best way to educate and mobilize the public. Indeed, that is how we started. However we discovered something. The problem with relying on public forums to build a movement appears to be that while people come and enthusiastically participate at an event, they then disappear. In our case, perhaps because people were already overwhelmed with other responsibilities and commitments, not a lot of participants volunteered to take the message further or joined a planning committee.
We came to the conclusion that a better strategy might be to build a coalition of concerned civil society groups that would push for a referendum. In deciding how to approach this, our group looked at the composition of the national Every Voter Counts Alliance. This is an alliance of 62 civil society groups across the country who support proportional representation. It includes 20 women’s groups, 12 unions, 11 social or political justice groups, five student groups, the National Pensioners’ Federation, three environment organizations and three groups with religious affiliations.
We were already in coalition with two other social justice groups, the St. John’s Chapter of the Council of Canadians and the Social Justice Cooperative. It was time to reach out to other civil society sectors.
Who did we approach and what was their response?
Our first setback, and this we had not anticipated, came from the women’s movement, or more specifically that part of the women’s movement that focuses on women in politics. Equal Voice Canada is a nation-wide organization dedicated to electing more women to all levels of political office in Canada. Given that countries with proportional representation have a significantly higher number of women elected at the different levels of government than first-past-the-post countries, we were puzzled as to why Equal Voice was not a member of Every Voter Counts. We wanted to know if their organization would encourage and support the NL chapter of Equal Voice in joining a coalition to push for a referendum in this province.
Equal Voice’s response to the three e-mails we sent to national personnel was -- no response at all. They simply ignored all our requests. We never learned why, but we have since noted that Equal Voice has significant sponsorship from the corporate sector – a sector that is largely hostile to proportional representation.
With the blueprint of the Every Voter Counts alliance still in mind, we then approached labour groups. All our meetings with union representatives were cordial. However, in the end no commitment came from any of the labour groups to our idea of mobilizing a coalition this fall. The unions had other priorities. That was our second setback.
By now we were getting somewhat discouraged, but we pushed on. We had conversations with representatives of the NL Coalition of Pensioners and we approached members of the Interfaith Religious Social Action Committee. We also spoke with contributors to “The Democracy Cookbook”. Again, the response was always cordial. Nevertheless there was a disinclination to get involved.
Our group had also begun inquiries about arranging a meeting with student organizations but did not pursue it. We had decided to admit defeat. It had become obvious that we were not going to be able to follow the PEI example where there had been a coalition of twelve different groups pushing for a referendum.
Were we wrong to think the timing was right to push for a referendum?
Maybe. And yet, it seemed like a good time to act for at least three reasons.
Reason #1 - Proportional Representation is a hot issue elsewhere in the country:
As reported in our October 29th blog, British Colombia is in the midst of a mail in referendum on proportional representation. PEI has committed to hold one attached to the next provincial election and Quebec intends to legislate a change to proportional representation within the next four years. The Quebec government is not even going to hold a referendum.
Reason #2 - Muskrat Falls:
Perhaps David Vardy, former chair of the Public Utilities Board and a witness granted full status at the ongoing Musgrave Falls Inquiry, has summed it up best.
“I think what happened here is that democracy has been usurped. Democracy needs to be reinvented here. The way we practice democracy is not working for us in this province.” (The Independent, Feb. 23, 2018)
Reason #3 - Our alarmingly low voter turnout
Did you know that voter turnout at the last provincial election was, according to Wikipedia, the lowest since Confederation? Almost half of eligible NL voters chose not to vote.
Our group has decided to put our proportional representation initiatives to one side for the time being.
We do that with great reluctance because we believe that our first-past-the-post electoral system, with its overwhelming, two party allegiance to the corporate sector, is incapable of addressing growing inequality, insecurity and unfairness. We also think the current sad state of politics and voter disengagement in Newfoundland and Labrador can’t be reformed by merely tinkering with the present system.
But there has to be a sufficient will for change. We, unfortunately, failed to find it.