British Columbians have an important decision to make in the coming weeks about electoral reform, but critics say the process is so steeped in politics that the outcome will never be respected.
Voting packages should be arriving in mailboxes soon for the referendum on whether or not the province should change from the current first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system to a form of proportional representation (PR).
The NDP government campaigned in part on a promise to bring in a referendum on PR, and the opposition BC Liberals are strongly opposed.
University of the Fraser Valley (UFV) political science professor Hamish Telford says there has been misinformation and even fear-mongering coming from the “no” side in the PR debate, but the process is troubling.
Fifteen years ago British Columbians narrowly voted against a form of PR after an exhaustive, non-partisan Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform. Telford says that process set the gold standard on engagement with citizens, with the major political parties sitting on the sidelines.
“This time with a less robust process, it’s becoming very partisan,” he said, pointing to a similarly robust process New Zealand used to move to a PR system, a process that involved a series of cascading referendums over various stages.
“If we do vote for a change, the change will be perceived by a large number of British Columbians as illegitimate.”
Chilliwack MLA John Martin has been a vocal advocate for the “no” side, but he too says it’s the process, not necessarily PR, that’s bad.
It’s quite amusing seeing all the pro PR NDPers gloating about one of their own winning Vancouver mayoralty with 28% of the vote. #bcvotes
— John Martin (@JohnMartinMLA) October 21, 2018
“The whole process around this is tainted,” Martin told The Progress over the phone from Victoria this week. “It is very partisan. We are going to get electoral reform, but you can’t have a player on a sports team being the referee at the same time and that’s kind of what we have.”
Then there is the ballot itself, which consists of two questions: firstly, which system should be used for provincial elections, PR of FPTP; and secondly, which of three systems do you prefer. Those are: dual member proportional, mixed member proportional, or rural-urban proportional.
“Two of them don’t exist in the solar system,” Martin complains. “One of them is only used in four countries.”
Strategically; it makes perfect sense that John Horgan wants to put the #PRDebate off as long as possible. The more people learn about PR the more they are likely to reject it. No wonder the details won't be released till after the fact. #StackedDeck #RiggedGame
— John Martin (@JohnMartinMLA) October 23, 2018
Beyond the process, some on the “no” side have had a few different complaints about PR. One is that it opens the door for members of extremist parties to get elected. There is, however, a threshold in B.C. that to be elected a party has to receive five per cent of the popular vote, but Martin says that’s possible and PR does enable fringe parties.
Some point to fascist parties gaining political leverage in places like Sweden and Germany, but Telford says that’s an exaggeration because Europe is a very different political environment.
“When we look at those places the problem isn’t PR, the problem is that in Sweden one in five people voted for a fascist party,” he said. “If a fascist party got 20 per cent of the vote in Canada we would have a problem with our current electoral system.”
Telford also points to the Bloc Quebecois, an extremist party with a goal of tearing the country apart, and which held considerable number of seats in Parliament under FPTP for years. Not only that, under PR the Bloc would have actually had fewer seats, because their support was so concentrated in one region.
For the “yes” side, essentially PR is a fairer system as no votes are “wasted” as they are under FPTP. In BC Liberal strongholds, like Chilliwack, a vote for the NDP can be seen as wasted. Under PR, if a party receives 40 per cent of the popular vote, the Legislature would be 40 per cent of that party’s MLAs.
“We are not talking about a simple technical matter,” Telford said. “We are talking about some fundamental democratic principles. The first principle is that the party that gets the most votes should get the most seats.”
Under FPTP the two main parties sometimes all but abandon what are seen as unwinnable ridings. Telford said where he lives in Abbotsford in the last provincial election, the NDP candidate lived in Burnaby and never even showed up to campaign.
“He was just a name on the ballot so the NDP could claim they ran a full slate of candidates.”
What seems to be at least part of the partisan concern about PR from the BC Liberals is that the system could bolster the otherwise lowly BC Conservatives and possibly tear apart their own party.
“What the Liberals really fear is a splintering of their famed coalition between two distinct parties,” Telford said.
That, coupled with the short-term reality that a PR system would likely only strengthen the Greens leading to an ongoing Green-NDP coalition, has BC Liberals nervous.
But Martin said that’s not the point, the point is the problematic way the referendum was rolled out.
“Parties come and go and every party is a coalition of one form or another,” Martin said. “That’s really not the point here. For me we have a really tainted process that has been very heavily politicized and tilted towards a particular result.”
Even if voters choose PR, and they choose the more well-known system used in Germany and New Zealand, there is a great deal of uncertainty how it would look in British Columbia. There are no maps to show what the electoral districts would look like. The idea is that ridings would be much larger in size, with likely half as many in total, and with the proportionality maintained by picking MLAs off a party list.
“It’s like buying a car but you are not allowed to look under the hood,” Martin said. “We don’t know what it would look like. We could end up with a riding that is Chilliwack-Hope-Merritt-Kamloops or we could be amalgamated with Abbotsford and Mission.”
Martin insists the opposition from himself and the BC Liberals is not about PR itself, but is about the process and they are demanding the NDP government put a pause on things to sort out the details.